The Drowned Girls - the first book in Loreth Anne White’s Angie Pallorino trilogy - is a superbly plotted, intense romantic thriller which sees the heroine trying to come to terms with family problems, the recent death of her work-partner and concerns about her own mental health - all while continuing to work as a detective in the Metro Victoria PD sex crimes unit and gunning for a promotion to the elite, all-male homicide division.
Angie has always been a bit difficult to work with. She’s hot-tempered, stubborn and doesn’t work well with others, but she’s good at her job and truly believes she makes a difference by doing what she does, putting away the sick bastards who prey (mostly) on women and young girls. But dealing with the sorts of things she has dealt with on a daily basis for the past six years has gradually taken its toll, and even before her partner was killed a few months earlier, Angie had begun to shut down her emotions and close herself off, to become all about the job and nothing else. But since his death, and the death of the child they were working to save from her abuser, Angie has pretty much gone down the rabbit-hole; she’s in a self-destructive downward spiral, driving herself harder and harder, having to work hard to contain her aggression and fury and needing to maintain control at all times, using meaningless sex with strangers as her coping mechanism and way of blowing off steam.
When a comatose sixteen-year-old girl is found dumped at the foot of a statue of the Madonna in a local graveyard, having been brutally assaulted, mutilated and almost drowned and has the shape of a crucifix carved into her forehead, Angie is sure it’s the work of the same killer she and her partner had been trying to put away three years earlier. There were two victims (that they knew of) both sexually assaulted and with a crucifix drawn on their foreheads with a red marker. The further disfigurement of the latest victim would indicate that the perpetrator is escalating – and the discovery of another body bearing the same mutilations and signs of assault, this time one who has been wrapped in polythene and dumped in the river – definitely supports that theory and indicates that he is almost certainly going to strike again soon.
Sergeant James Maddocks, formerly of the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) has recently moved to the area in order to be close to his daughter, Ginny, who is a student at the University of Victoria. His marriage broke down under the strain placed upon it by his job and while the move to the Victoria PD is a bit of a step-backwards career wise, he wants to be near Ginny and to be a better dad. He is assigned as lead on the case of the body found in the river, and when the victim from the graveyard dies, the case turns into a double homicide.
With the death of the assault victim, the hunt for a serial rapist becomes the hunt for a serial killer, and, given her familiarity with the killer’s MO and with the earlier unsolved murders, Angie is seconded to the homicide team investigating both murders. The discovery that her new partner and boss is the guy she’d picked up in a bar and fucked the night before just pushes her closer to the edge; how can she work with someone who knows something so personal about her, and who - she is sure - must know she’s screwed up inside?
But Maddocks is a good guy. He doesn’t push and he agrees with Angie that they should put that night behind them – although it becomes quickly clear that isn’t going to be easy for either of them. There’s an attraction there than neither can ignore; and for Angie, it’s a problem. She has rules, lines she mustn’t cross; sex for her is about control, not caring, but she senses that Maddocks is someone she could come to care for and it scares the hell out of her.
This is the first book I’ve read by Loreth Anne White, and it definitely won’t be the last. I was completely gripped by the story from the start and kept eagerly turning the pages as she ratcheted up the tension, introducing new plot threads and characters into the mix and weaving an increasingly complex and engrossing story involving political corruption, a rogue reporter with connections to the earlier victims, and possible links to a sex-trafficking ring.
But at the heart of the book is Angie herself, a woman who pushes herself too hard and is clearly on the edge of a major breakdown. At the beginning of the book, her father has just had her mother admitted to a psychiatric care home for a mental illness that began to manifest itself several years earlier. Angie’s relationship with both her parents has deteriorated badly in recent years, and it’s clear that her father, a university professor, is not happy about her chosen career. When Angie starts hallucinating, seeing a little girl in a pink dress, she starts to wonder if it’s because she’s gone too long without sleep… or if perhaps her mother’s condition – which can be inherited – is starting to affect her. Angie is a complicated and not always likeable character who makes some questionable decisions, but there’s no doubt that she cares deeply about getting justice for the victims of the crimes she investigates. Her relationship with Maddocks is nicely done; they’re combustible together but neither is prepared for the emotional pull they feel toward one another, or for the degree of trust that builds between them.
The Drowned Girls kept me reading late into the night as layer upon layer was peeled away to reveal the intricate connections between the various characters and the extent of their involvement with the killer. Angie’s storyline is equally compelling; she’s a mess of issues around control, trust and intimacy, and needs to face up to them if she’s ever going to climb out of the hole she’s dug for herself. She has the guts to do it – but in doing so, uncovers secrets about her past that cause her to question everything she’s ever known.
The balance between thriller, romance and Angie’s personal journey is just about right, and Ms. White does a terrific job in inexorably building the dramatic tension as she propels us into an exciting, high-stakes climax. But while the case is solved by the end of the book, Angie has much to learn about herself, and I imagine that her search for answers, together with her developing relationship with Maddocks will continue through the other books in the trilogy.
The Drowned Girls is strongly recommended for fans of edgy heroines and gritty romantic suspense. I’m already counting the days until book two comes out in November.
Note: The book contains some gruesome and distressing descriptions of the victims’ various injuries that are probably stronger than some of the things we see in police procedurals on TV.