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trace of evil

29 february 2024

Burning Lake, New York is one of these fictional burgs where your chances of getting murdered at some point in your life are better than fifty-fifty. Witchcraft and black magic abound, the cold-case file stretches around the block, and most of the police force consists of relatives of murder victims. For all that, Alice Blanchard, in Trace of Evil, constructs a detective story where the procedural elements are sensible and the characters and their interrelationships true to life.

Trace of Evil bogs down only when the sheer number of intersecting crimes reaches overload. For most of its length, it's a conventional procedural with a single murder and a townful of relatively cozy suspects. Beloved teacher Daisy Buckner has died of blunt force trauma (in the kitchen, with a skillet). Her husband Brandon is a homicide detective; protagonist Natalie Lockhart and Brandon himself find Daisy's body, and Brandon promptly runs amok. But did the wayward student that Brandon suspects do the killing? Did Brandon himself? Or did the saturnine English teacher that Daisy was having an affair with? Or is the case bound up with a long string of disappearances of homeless people, the long-ago murder of Natalie's sister Willow, an ancient assault that scarred Natalie for life, or the town's association with witch trials centuries before?

For me, the novel is better the closer it sticks to the Buckner murder, and weaker as it spirals away into all these proliferating concerns. But would the "simple" murder mystery have been enough to sustain a full-length novel? I'd have liked to see it try. Burning Lake is an interesting place, interesting enough to take its murders one at a time instead of jumbling decades of them into a single plot.

Blanchard, Alice. Trace of Evil. New York: Minotaur [Macmillan], 2019.