I’m a fan of US author Charlie Donlea. I’ve very much enjoyed some of his recent books including The Suicide House and The Woman in Darkness. They all feature past crimes and long-kept secrets and have leveraged popular culture, including podcasts, true crime documentaries (or similar); uncovering missed clues and injustice. Donlea maintains the intrigue and twistiness in his latest, Twenty Years Later.
Twenty Years Later
by Charlie Donlea
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation
Source: Penguin Random House Australia
Genres: Thriller / Suspense
Avery Mason, host of American Events, knows the subjects that grab a TV audience's attention. Her latest story--a murder mystery laced with kinky sex, tragedy, and betrayal--is guaranteed to be ratings gold. New DNA technology has allowed the New York medical examiner's office to make its first successful identification of a 9/11 victim in years. The twist: the victim, Victoria Ford, had been accused of the gruesome murder of her married lover. In a chilling last phone call to her sister, Victoria begged her to prove her innocence.
Emma Kind has waited twenty years to put her sister to rest, but closure won't be complete until she can clear Victoria's name. Alone she's had no luck, but she's convinced that Avery's connections and fame will help. Avery, hoping to negotiate a more lucrative network contract, goes into investigative overdrive. Victoria had been having an affair with a successful novelist, found hanging from the balcony of his Catskills mansion. The rope, the bedroom, and the entire crime scene was covered in Victoria's DNA.
But the twisted puzzle of Victoria's private life belies a much darker mystery. And what Avery doesn't realize is that there are other players in the game who are interested in Avery's own secret past--one she has kept hidden from both the network executives and her television audience. A secret she thought was dead and buried...
The book opens in 2001 (which really does just feel like yesterday, but apparently isn’t) with the police’s discovery of a man’s body ‘hung’ macabrely in his house in the Catskills. A shiny new detective is taking his badge out for its first test drive and the physical evidence makes it seem like a slam-dunk for the prosecution. However, just as accused killer Victoria Ford is meeting with her lawyer about her case, her world falls down around her – literally (And I’ll stop with the metaphors now!).
It’s weird no one made a big deal out of the fact the 2001 murder was officially not-closed given the victim was a high-profile author. Then I was surprised that even a cursory look into the 9/11 victim once identified, didn’t immediately give present day medical examiners (or Avery) an inkling that her newly-found victim was part of a bigger story, surely just googling her identity would have spat out that fact?!
In the background Avery has her own secrets. Again I’m surprised these haven’t been excavated with some ease as she hasn’t gone to too much trouble to hide her former self. She was shattered years before to learn that her father’s wealth and her privileged life came off the back of a ponzi scheme in which many many people lost their money. Her father was arrested but disappeared before standing trial and the experience sent her mother into the proverbial early grave. The FBI suspect she’s been helping her father remain in hiding. She hasn’t but he’s finally reached out, and the 9/11 cold case is initially just an excuse to go to New York.
I liked Avery but Donlea doesn’t hold back in highlighting her ambition and… well, ruthlessness. Donlea also (through Avery’s narration) makes it clear the TV show host knows she’s in need of some therapy over the tragic death of her brother, then her mother and betrayal by her father. Avery mentions notion of blood being thicker than water and the concept of unconditional love seems to be something she ponders. Again and again.
We also meet Walt Jenkins, a former cop and disgraced FBI agent who’s spending his early retirement in Jamaica. He’s only in his 40s so knows his life of rum, rum and more rum, isn’t sustainable but until reminded of his first case as detective he’s not interested in rejoining the living.
He’s planted by the FBI to help Avery, with the goal of learning more about her father’s whereabouts. But… obviously things don’t go to plan.
In some ways there’s quite a bit happening here. A few plots within plots with Avery’s backstory looming over everything else. I wondered if Donlea threw a few too many twists into the murder enquiry as it became a little diluted with detail, but he manages to eke out a twist when we least expect it. And as for Avery’s story, I certainly did not see that coming so he very cleverly crafted the whole story arc with nuance, misdirecting readers in a way that only later we could reflect on what WASN’T said rather than what we missed.
This is certainly an enjoyable read. I liked the characters rather than loved them (and certainly engaged little with the cold case) but the twisty plot kept me turning page after page.
Twenty Years Later by Charlie Donlea was published in Australia by Penguin Random House and is now available.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.