In 1995 two sisters, Kristy and Kelly Montee, originally from Detroit but then living in two different southern states, combined to become one mystery writer, P. J. Parrish. As Parrish, they (or she?) created the essential ingredient of any mystery: the inimitable, unforgettable cop or private eye. In this case, it's Louis Kincaid.
The fictional Kincaid spent his childhood first in Detroit and then in a foster home in Plymouth. After graduating from the U-M, he became a cop for the Ann Arbor Police Department, but he has always had his issues with authority. Over the course of seven novels he has moved up and down the country — from Miami to the fictional northern town of Loon Lake, Michigan — and in and out of various police departments and a practice as a private investigator. Through it all, as the murders have mounted around him, he has risked his life, his health, and certainly his good name to solve the crimes.
In Kincaid's most recent incarnation, a page-turner called An Unquiet Grave, he returns to Michigan to help his foster father find the body of a long-lost love. The lover's family had confined her in the Hidden Lake Sanitarium, a notoriously scary hospital for the needy and the mentally infirm, here nicely placed in the Irish Hills, a part of the state that has always seemed a bit spooky to me. The hospital has been closed, and the cemetery is about to be moved. When the long-dead lover's casket is exhumed, it is found to contain nothing but rocks.
Thus begins a byzantine but spine-tingling plot that takes Kincaid across the state, from Grosse Pointe to Saugatuck, with stops at the U-M Hospital and in Plymouth subdivisions. He meets hardworking
small-town cops (it's fun to find places like Napoleon, Michigan, in a book!), dedicated nurses, drunken heirs, and corrupt professors. And out there at Hidden Lake in the Irish Hills he meets the incurably ill, the benign and maligned, and the pathological. The conclusion to
the novel — a scream-haunted chase through the tunnels that connect the many buildings of the hospital — is as frightening as one could hope for and certainly deserves to be a summer flick in some future year starring John Malkovich or someone equally scary.
Parrish is good with these effects. But she (or they?) is very good at making each crime Louis Kincaid investigates an aid to his gradual self-discovery. He is always growing in self-awareness and complexity, so each novel becomes an essential step in the aging of the protagonist. Of course the books are more than successful at satisfying whatever that urge is that brings us to murder mysteries, but there is also just a hint of this added dimension.
P. J. Parrish appears in both her bodies to read and discuss An Unquiet Grave at Aunt Agatha's bookstore on Wednesday, July 12.
[Review published July 2006]