Sarah Cook, a beautiful blonde teenager disappeared fifteen years ago, the same night her parents were brutally murdered in their suburban Ohio home. Her boyfriend Brad Stockton – black and from the wrong side of the tracks – was convicted of the murders and sits on death row, though he always maintained his innocence. With his execution only weeks away, his devoted sister, insisting she has spotted Sarah at a local gas station, hires PI Roxane Weary to look again at the case.
Reeling from the recent death of her cop father, Roxane finds herself drawn to the story of Sarah’s vanishing act, especially when she thinks she’s linked Sarah’s disappearance to one of her father’s unsolved murder cases involving another teen girl. Despite her self-destructive tendencies, Roxane starts to hope that maybe she can save Brad’s life and her own…

And so to a debut thriller from Kristen Lepionka, The Last Place You Look, revolving around her troubled female private investigator Roxanne Weary, and a perplexing case in which she seeks to clear the name of an allegedly falsely accused man on Death Row. The plot plays out pleasingly enough, as Weary finds her own family connections inextricable linked with her investigation into this case, and encounters some harsh resistance along the way as she probes deeper into the missing links between these violent events. A few twists and turns along the way keep the action moving along at a pace, and despite a slight hackneyed scenario towards the close of the book, enough is initially kept hidden from Weary, and by extension the reader, to satisfy us with its twists and turns. However, the real strength of Lepionka’s writing lies within her characterisation of  Weary herself…

Being a little world weary (excuse the pun)  of crime thrillers featuring private investigators, I did approach this one a little tentatively at first, but my fears were assuaged somewhat by some nifty characterisation on the part of Lepionka. Although other reviewers have drawn comparison with the hardboiled tradition of Raymond Chandler, I felt that Weary was definitely more closely aligned with the forthright private investigator characters redolent of Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton and a smattering of a more worldly wise Nancy Drew. I think these influences shine through in her portrayal of Weary, reeling from her father’s death, combating her personal demons with alcohol and sex, and being very much of the mould of act now and think later. I did find the dynamics of her  personal relationships with her father’s police partner Tom and the frosty artistic Catherine interesting, and how her behaviour morphed and changed when in their company, or fretting about the emotional depth of her involvement with them.  This added a nice tangential aspect to the storyline, and gave us a greater insight into Weary’s character and her emotional complexity. I had a growing admiration for her as her travails increased, and rather liked her gung-ho attitude in the face of this complex and dangerous case, so much so that the strength of her character rather over-shadowed other characters in the book, who are a trifle hazy in my recollection a few weeks after reading the book.

Overall with The Last Place You Look,  my attention was held mostly by Weary, and the ups and downs of her emotional state, along with the clear-sightedness with which she approaches this troubling case. Although a little less convinced by the final denouement, this was an engaging enough read, and think that Lepionka has a few more roads to travel yet with this character. Recommended.

(With thanks to Faber for the ARC)

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