Liz Moore is a new master of the literary mystery
With all the vitriol over Oprah’s anointing of much-maligned American Dirt as her latest book-club pick, you might have missed Long Bright River’s coronation from Good Morning America’s new book-club counterpart.
You’ll want to rectify that right now.
In Long Bright River, Liz Moore cements her formidable literary mystery talents. She joins authors like Denise Mina and Laura Lippman as a master of using the whodunnit frame to explore social issues and the vagaries of human relationships, while also evoking a deep sense of place.
Her work with the communities of Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, where those caught in the grip of opioids often turn to sex work or other crimes to fund a fix, partially inspired Long Bright River.
The story centers on two sisters. Michaela “Mickey” Fitzpatrick is a beat cop and single mom who spent years looking after her younger sibling after her father left and her mother OD’d. Unfortunately, Kacey has followed her mother into addiction.
Mickey cared for Kacey during her lapsed years and her clean ones, and still keeps an eye out for her sister during her patrols in Kensington. But Kacey’s been mysteriously absent from the streets for several weeks, and when a call comes in about a dead girl on the railroad tracks, Mickey fears the worst.
That body isn’t Kacey, but she’s also not an overdose victim. And when more young women who’ve been using also turn up murdered, Mickey decides she needs to push past the discomfort of estrangement to hunt for her sister.
It’s a timely and well-told mystery. But Mickey’s fraught relationships also keep you reading.
Mickey’s hard-won independence has made her wary of opening up to almost anyone except her toddler son Thomas, who she leaves with an often-distracted sitter during work hours. Moore nimbly maps mom guilt, especially during one painful sequence when Mickey invites two of Thomas’ preschool friends to a McDonalds for an impromptu birthday celebration:
“But Georgia kneels down and places her hand on her daughter’s shoulder. Carlotta, she says, we talked about this. We brought lunch, remember? … Georgia glances up at us quickly before standing and steering her daughter, now crying, ten feet away, where she crouches down again and speaks to her lowly, urgently.
“I turn away, pretending not to watch, or care. But I can imagine what Georgia is telling Carlotta: This food is not for us, honey.”
Yet motherhood is just one part of Mickey’s life where she struggles to fit in. Anxiety steers her away from her extended family: “There is a particular insult that the O’Briens often use to describe people they don’t like: She thinks she’s better than us. Over the years, I fear that it has been used about me.”
She deeply misses her former partner Truman, out on disability leave, but shame over her inability to prevent his attack or arrest the perpetrator keeps her from calling him until she needs his help.
Her skittishness is understandable, since the last time she trusted someone besides Kacey was her ex-husband, fellow cop Simon Cleare. The pair met when she was just a teen and he was the liaison to a Police Athletic League youth program. Though we can see the power imbalance from the jump, Cleare’s attention to a younger Mickey hungry for companionship triggers a rift between the sisters, since Kacey rightly sees through Cleare’s honeyed machinations.
Even so, the bond between sisters was once the only strong and true thing in their ever-shifting world. Those good memories fuel Mickey’s stubborn search. You’ll have to read Long Bright River to find out how that ends up, but know that Moore’s skill at sketching Mickey’s damaged, hopeful soul is mesmerizing.
(Riverhead Books, January 7, 2020)