Tightly plotted and tensely told mystery that kept me guessing and gave me a strong sense of a place and its people.
The only thing I didn't like about 'Her Final Words' was the opening. It's the hook the rest of the book wriggles on: a teenage girl from rural Idaho drives for five hours, crossing a State line, to the FBI field office in Seattle, asks for agent Lucy Thorne by name, confesses to having murdered a twelve-year-old boy, explains that the boy's body has a bible verse carved into it and then refuses to say more. It's a great hook that was never going to need much to sell it, yet I felt like everything in the opening was too bright and too loud and trying too hard to tell 'look how dramatic this is!'
I almost stopped there. Except it really was a great hook and I wanted to wriggle on it a little so I persisted. I'm very glad I did. The tone changed as soon as Lucy Thorne arrives in Idaho, with a long weekend to check out the details of an apparently open and shut case that feels off because there is no motive. The image of the Sheriff standing in the rain waiting to meet Thorne and take her to where the body was found was dramatic without being pushed hard.
It quickly becomes clear that the teenager who confessed to the killing and the boy who was killed were both members of a local Church/Cult and I wondered for a while if we were up for Federal Government rescuing the poor country folk from an abusive cult sort of story, because that never ends well but, thankfully, Brianna Labuskes was more ambitious and more original than that.
This is a story where good guys and bad guys are hard to tell apart. Where everyone is connected to everyone else but how and what it means are not clear and where the only thing the FBI agent is certain about is that she doesn't understand what's really going on.
The false simplicity of 'the bad cult must be to blame' is quickly replaced with something denser and more textured. I liked the way Brianna Labuskes brought out the geographical isolation of this rural community while showing how aware everyone is of what everyone else is doing and who they're doing it with.
Telling the story through multiple points of view and cross-cutting timelines that flip from 'Now' to 'Three Days Earlier' really tightened the tension and kept the surprises coming. The more Agent Thorne learns about the people and their history with one another, the more complicated the puzzle becomes and the fewer people she can trust. Discovering the story from the point of view of the teenagers involved and the Sheriff as well as Agent Thorne made everything more personal and more human as well as deepening the mystery.
The plot, the characters and the tightly controlled pace kept me engaged all the way through. The denouement was unexpected, memorable, believable and deeply sad.
I'll be back for more of Brianna Labuskes' stories.