Rating: 4.5 stars
Buy Link:
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Length: Novel

 

Investigative journalist Colette Birzhan has sniffed out her next big scoop after her roommate, Jackie, shared an abysmal story from a St. Louis newspaper. Several white, male escorts have been found murdered in the Gateway City, along the banks of the Mississippi in a majority Black neighborhood. Colette doesn’t need any more details to know that it is something more than gang-related violence or someone running afoul of drug runners. Less than twenty-four hours after hearing the news, Colette is on a plane from New York to St. Louis with the full backing of her employer, the New York City Tribune. In short order, Colette has toured the city and interviewed far more people than the local paper did. The unhoused people who spend summers in the park where the most victims have been found give her names and a reason to believe the murderer is dumping bodies on land, not in the river. Local sex workers provide crucial real-time information on which clients are linked to which sex workers. And everything is pointing to a man in a black SUV known to frequent a St. Louis suburb called Scenic Hills.

Roland Duchene is the artistic director of the local theatre and has many faults, none of which he would fess up to. After all, he can buy his way out of any trouble. But Roland prefers to spend his money on theater-related parties and even more money on after parties with attractive young men that he flies into St. Louis for a weekend of debauched fun at his home in Scenic Hills. Charlie Prescott, his neighbor, is a huge fan of Roland’s flashy shows of excess. However, loneliness pushes Charlie to accept Roland’s pre-party invitations for a glass of wine and free eye candy. He even accepts Roland’s job offer of sewing for the theater. If nothing else, the job gives Charlie a chance to gossip with the theater’s two other costumers—something Charlie missed dearly when he closed his own shop after his assistant, Tiana Baker, was shot and killed. Kendrick Baker always loved his mother, even if she never quite figured out how to be a mother. He felt unmoored when he came home one night to find her dead, and became literally unmoored when his landlord evicted him for late rent not long after. Kendrick turned to the streets to earn a living, learning the ropes the hard way. Then Zeke Briggs came along, ready to help Kendrick navigate his new reality living on the streets and selling favors to get by. Zeke seemed to have it pretty good, all things considered. He had connections with wealthy clients like Roland and someone who Zeke could always identify in his big, black SUV.

A Scenic Hills Summer is a Colette Birzhan Mystery by author Shannon Yarbrough. The story centers on the so-called Greenway City Killer, their activity, and Colette’s efforts to uncover the truth. I really enjoyed how various characters’ stories layered over each other and intertwined. Colette may be the driving force for this book, but the plot switches between many points of view. Colette brings us to the action and serves as a sort of touchstone, but the story frequently shifts into other characters’ perspectives. I thought this was a great way to build tension for two reasons. First, I thought the book might embark on a classic whodunit mystery set-up where each new character could potentially be the murderer. Second, there was some recounting (both first- and second-hand) of the victims’ final days and hours, building up the MO for the murderer without positively identifying who it was.

Ultimately, neither the “whodunit” nor the “victim’s perspective” rhetorical device fully developed on page. Instead, those notions coalesced into ensemble cast kind of story telling. Yarbrough introduces these characters and their situations early. That was effective at building tension and loads of anticipation…anyone could have a bad run-in at any moment. There were also several opportunities for an “aha!” moment. I loved it when I realized that there was a connection between Charlie the seamster and Kendrick the recently orphaned and unhoused. Even better was the gentle way Yarbrough used Charlie’s own voice as a way to jog the reader’s memory that the connection between Charlie and Kendrick had actually been on-page far earlier in the story. It was a lot of fun to read about these characters, to follow along, to feel like I had picked up the thread only to realize I was picking up on connections between characters that were in plain view from the beginning. Maybe more eagle-eyed readers won’t have the pleasure of that reveal, but it was absolutely present for me.

I was a little surprised at how early the identity of the murderer became apparent. There was a lot of masking their identity, simply making it known that the killer probably drove a black SUV. But somewhere well before the climactic scene, the reader knows beyond a shadow of a doubt which character is guilty. Specifically, we spend a bit of time in that character’s head and they explain exactly what they are doing. But at the crucial moment in the story when the killer started to see their admittedly clever-sounding (to me) plans start to unravel, the people most at risk didn’t know they’re in clear and present danger until they were being coerced into a car at gunpoint. So maybe the big reveal was a bit tame, but the climactic scene was not lacking at all for action and tension between the killer and his potential victims.

A Scenic Hills Summer was also crammed full of BIPOC and queer representation. Colette is a transwoman and her roommate is an always fabulous drag queen. Our two main sex worker characters are Black, one with a form of albinism. One of Colette’s first interviews is with an unhoused man. Yarbrough made a commitment to reflecting the local vernacular in at least one character’s dialogue and that really made the character’s voice pop in my mind (I am no expert in American dialects, but as a language professional, I appreciated the consistency in DeAndre’s voice). Many of these characters’ personal histories with their identities got briefly explored on-page, but didn’t go in depth. I think that worked great with all the different characters sharing story space. Only so many layers got pulled back, but divvying up the details out over time helped keep the characters interesting as individuals to me. And with Colette, I think this technique was great because there could be a whole lot more to discover about her in future books.

Overall, I thought A Scenic Hills Summer was a great read. There was just a splash of romance with a hint of fade-to-black spice, but that fit with the tone of the book. The characters as they relate to a string of murders felt like the real star of the story. Colette takes the lead, but as she uncovered details and leads, the action peeled off to follow new characters. Slowly, a much bigger and richer picture began to unfold. Just as I started to get into the groove of having so many moving pieces, the story started to funnel into the big climactic scene where the killer’s next victims realized they were in danger. The action felt very visceral and the ending both happy and bittersweet. If you like murder thriller stories or want a good thread featuring an investigative journalist who knows how to walk the walk, then I think you’ll really enjoy this book.