When some teenagers out looking to party in a remote section of the forest in Chalk Valley, British Columbia stumble upon the remains of a young woman, Detective John McCarty is tasked with heading up the investigation. It’s a task that becomes exponentially more complicated when, during their search of the surrounding area for evidence, the bodies of two more young women are discovered. The subsequent autopsy on the first victim reveals her killing was extremely methodical and highly brutal. A single such murder in the sleepy town would have been news enough, but the idea that there is a serial killer on the loose is unimaginable.
Two hundred kilometers away in Baywater, British Columbia, Sergeant Dave Kreaver is having problems of his own. While on the way home late one evening, Kreaver witnesses a van crash off the side of the road and stops to help. The driver, Phil Lindsay, appears unhurt, but is overly anxious to downplay the event. Not realizing Kreaver is law enforcement, Lindsay tries to persuade Kreaver to just drive away. Suspicious, Kreaver looks inside the wrecked van and finds a partially clothed, unconscious teenage girl. Kreaver gets backup to the scene, but during the turmoil of trying to help the girl, whom Lindsay claims is his niece, Lindsay slips away into the woods. He’s picked up five kilometers away trying to flee the area by cab, and by that time Kreaver has discovered something else in the back of the van: a bag containing a mask, rope, duct tape, a pipe, and handcuffs. A rape kit.
When Kreaver attempts to question Lindsay, he quickly realizes he’s dealing with an incredibly smart, slick individual; one who has no criminal record, is gainfully employed, and who has a wife and teenage daughter. The perfect family man. Unfortunately, merely owning the items in the bag isn’t illegal, and there’s no medical evidence of sexual assault. That combined with Lindsay’s story, which naturally conflicts with that of the girl, who happens to have a fairly sizable juvenile record, makes the prosecutor reluctant to bring charges in what would boil down to a he said/she said situation. Kreaver has no choice but to let Lindsay go. The interview may be over, but two town’s shared nightmare is just beginning.
Chalk Valley, the debut novel from author D.L. Johnstone, is an amazingly well-crafted piece of crime fiction. On its face, the serial killer trope has been done to death. Where Johnstone absolutely shines and sets Chalk Valley apart, however, is in his characterizations. The story may be built around the skeleton of a serial killer, but it is fleshed out by the struggles and frustrations of the two men leading their respective investigations. That Lindsay is “the guy” is known from the outset; this isn’t a mystery. Rather, the portrait Chalk Valley paints is that of an intricate, painful examination of how the lives in the path of such an investigation are twisted and ripped apart.
McCarty simply does not have the experience or the resources to handle an investigation of the magnitude he finds himself in charge of, yet at the same time his pride won’t allow him to ask for the outside assistance he needs. It doesn’t help that his boss is also adamant that the Mounties not swoop in and take things over, thereby making the Chalk Valley police department look small-time and incompetent. The pressure causes McCarty, who already had a drinking problem, to slip into a downward spiral that affects both his job and his marriage. The question isn’t if he’s going to implode, but when.
Kreaver, recently divorced and still coping with the death of his young son, doesn’t have the ego issues that are tripping up McCarty. Quite the opposite, actually. Kreaver is trying desperately to get anyone and everyone he can on the same page to help bring the case to a conclusion. He knows who the killer is, he just can’t find a way to nail the guy. At every turn he runs into some sort of stumbling block. Be it the innocent failure of officers to follow up on tips, the deliberate refusal of people like McCarty to cooperate, or simply the miles and miles of red tape inherent in the system, Kreaver just can’t seem to catch the break he needs to turn the tide. He gets tired of waiting, however, and decides to take measures into his own hands.
Not even Lindsay’s family is immune to the pressure. In fact, they may actually be the ones most traumatized by events. Though his wife has always known her husband has his secrets – what exactly is in that locked room in the basement she’s never supposed to enter? – she can’t bring herself to believe he could be capable of anything truly evil, not even when evidence to the contrary starts to mount. Even Lindsay himself starts to unravel as the story progresses, a process made all the more deadly by the inefficiency that is the morass of interjurisdictional law enforcement, a sieve that continuously allows Lindsay to wiggle free.
And throughout it all, Johnstone incorporates first-rate scenes of boots on the ground police investigation, forensic examinations, and behavioral profiling. Quite simply, Chalk Valley presents a balance of action, police technique, and character development that is incredibly rare to find period, and damn near unheard of in a debut. The year’s not over quite yet, but I highly expect Chalk Valley to be among the books making a strong play for a spot on my Top 10 Reads of 2012 list when January 1st rolls around.
Chalk Valley is available at Amazon.