Triviana

Gritty and sad
at the edge of America;
a great debut by a new novelist

''On Edge''
By Barbara Fister
(Bantam Dell Publishing, 276 pps., $6.50 in paperback)

Buy it at Amazon.com in paperback

Reviewed by John Orr
December 2002

A province of this column is to alert readers to new mystery authors worthy of attention. Failing that, to find worthwhile new books by established writers. Failing that, it's to warn readers about books by established writers that aren't up to snuff.

This novel is from the first category.

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian currently living in the wilds of Minnesota whose first mystery ''On Edge'' is a knock-out thriller.

Fister's hero is Konstantin Slovo, a Chicago cop who's had a long, tough career. His partner has just been shot to death in his old Ford Mustang, the police department is investigating as if he himself might be a suspect, and he's fed up. He hits the road and a flipped coin leads him to Brimsport, Maine, instead of Seattle, Washington.

He's rousted almost immediately by the Brimsport cops, who recognize that big brown stain in the backseat for what it is, and are excited by the gun they find in his glove compartment ... until they find out that he is a cop, too, and wasn't in the area when the nasty crimes they are investigating took place.

Brimsport is a hard-luck town that is still suffering the angst of something that had happened 20 years earlier ... charges of organized, perhaps satanic, sex abuse of children. But no convictions were ever made, shades of the McMartin pre-school case.

'''No one was even brought to trial,''' a local doctor tells Slovo. '''Dozens of arrests were made, but the investigation was out of control and the accusations were growing so bizarre that the DA finally dropped all charges. The police chief was dismissed and Cobbett was brought in to pick up the pieces. But a great many people still believe that a conspiracy had existed, that evil went unpunished.''

And now the bodies of two murdered children have been found in Brimsport and a third is missing, and although the local cops know Slovo isn't involved, hysterical local rowdies suspect him ... and trash his car, and then trash him.

That fired police chief, Mike McGavin, has made a books-and-lecture-tour career out of warning people about sex and satan, as has the father of Julian Flyte, one of the alleged victims of 20 years before.

The new police chief, Joe Cobbett, is a straight-arrow who's just trying to find the killer and keep his town from coming apart. He also has a daughter, Ruth, with beautiful eyes that capture Slovo's interest.

Slovo gets involved in the investigation, finding the body of the third victim and desperately trying to find the bad guy before a fourth child is killed. Before long, there are plenty of prominent suspects, including Flyte.

The killer has been very smart ... only grabbing children from incompetent, perhaps drunken, parents who didn't even notice right away that their children were missing. But he's also been terribly cruel, psychotic, in what he does with his tiny victims.

''Those kids I took,'' the killer is eventually to say, ''they didn't have a future. ... Those kids had been dealt a lousy hand.''

Fister writes on her web site (www.barbarafister.com) about reading ''Crime and Punishment'' at the tender age of 10 or 11. ''Within a few pages, I was so thoroughly hypnotized I couldn't put it down,'' she says. ''I felt drugged and kidnapped, taken to a darker place than I'd ever been before.''

She grew up to major in Russian literature and travel all around the world, before settling (maybe) into a job in Minnesota. Her writing has the kind of truth to it that comes from being smart and aware in a hard world, and this book, in addition to being a thrilling mystery, has plenty to say about our society.

She draws a very real, very scary picture of that little troubled town in Maine.

She has a second book in the pipeline, and I am looking forward to it.