An errand of compassion turns deadly in Holt’s gritty second Stella Fargo Mystery. Stella Fargo is supposed to clear out the house of Hannah Pickett, the daughter of Stella's good friend and mentor, and a young woman who has gone missing.
As Stella nears Hannah's house, she is stopped by a roadblock, and rattled both to hear that human remains have been found in the nearby woods and by the undersheriff's behavior. Her unease intensifies when she discovers Hannah's bedroom has been defiled, unearths hidden documentation of another young girl's abuse, and learns that a mother is obsessed with her dead children, to the point of ignoring her living kids. Despite perilous threats, including from her own past, Stella can't help but get involved.
Stella is not alone in her efforts. She starts the story as a woman with a full and satisfying life, who enjoys the love and support of her husband and their friends, and along the way she accumulates more friends, mostly by teaming with local matriarch Exie Havelok, who reigns over an enviably wide network. This social aspect helps balance the gruesome descriptions that will be hard for squeamish readers while serving to distinguish Stella from countless hardboiled loner protagonists–Stella is haunted by her past, quite literally, but she is a woman of agency who is capable of saving herself and others from harm.
Though Holt acknowledges the grim reality of violence against women and children ("Seems like graves found in the woods always are girls”), she takes care not to paint all men as evil or all women as fragile, broken victims. At times, the sprawling cast and highly detailed narrative can prove overwhelming, especially for newcomers to crime fiction, and sideline some intriguing plot points. But Holt delivers a deeply disturbing wild ride with some jolting twists and a strong sense of character.
Takeaway: An unsettling thriller with a strong female hero and a high count of bodies and plot twists.