What Lies Behind, J.T. Ellison’s fourth Samantha Owens thriller, begins on the wobbly heels of a drunk co-ed and her friend as they stumble through Georgetown in the wee hours of the morning, planning to pay a surprise visit to an ex-boyfriend. Thomas Cattafi is a medical student and promising young pathology researcher, and the grisly scene at his apartment stuns the college students sober and kick-starts a whirlwind twenty-four-hour investigation involving multiple law-enforcement agencies and no shortage of hired guns, terrorist implications, and conspiracy theories.
Samantha Owens hears the sirens only blocks away and senses the worst. Owens knows death intimately: it “comes in all forms, from all directions. Expected or by surprise, it was the greatest common denominator, the great equalizer. She felt an affinity with the grimness, couldn’t help that.” A former medical examiner for the state of Tennessee, she has fled personal tragedy in Nashville in favor of a fresh start in Washington. “Sirens used to mean her phone was going to ring, and she’d have to drop everything and rush to a crime scene,” Ellison writes, but Owens is teaching at Georgetown now and moonlighting as a cold-case investigator for the FBI. She is mostly relieved not to be on call every hour of the day, but part of her misses the thrill.
Then Darren Fletcher, a friend and a D.C. homicide lieutenant, is assigned to investigate the blood-drenched Cattafi crime scene and asks Owens to ride along and lend her expertise. The med student has been rushed to the hospital in a coma, and his mysterious female companion has been stabbed to death in what initially appears to be a murder-suicide. But further investigation reveals something else entirely: Cattafi’s companion, Amanda Souleyret, has a record that is “blacked out in the system,” and crime-scene evidence indicates the presence of an unknown third party.
To deepen the mystery, Fletcher and Owens are floored by what they find in Cattafi’s unplugged wine refrigerator. “What in the hell was a student doing with a refrigerator full of pathogens?” Owens wonders. “Even if he was an M.D./Ph.D. candidate, there was no reason to have the items at his home. They belonged in a lab. Cattafi was involved in something bad, that was for sure. Something this woman, Amanda Souleyret, had brought to his door?”
Meanwhile, a voyeuristic serial killer with a diabolical secret weapon to avoid apprehension is biding his time until he can finally focus his attention on the most enticing prey of all—the brilliant and beautiful Dr. Owens herself, who’s been tracking him for the FBI.
Fans of Patricia Cornwell will appreciate Ellison’s brand of high intrigue paired with a medical-examiner slant. While the Scarpetta novels have delved into a more experimental style in recent years, What Lies Behind is a straightforward and multilayered thriller with a dynamic cast of characters and an intricate web of conspiracy and backstory. Nashville-based Ellison, whose national reputation has been growing for years, is sure to win more new fans and critical acclaim with her latest thriller.
Kathryn Justice Leache is a freelance writer who lives with her family in her hometown of Memphis. Her life among books has included work as a librarian and stints as a bookseller at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, and The Booksellers at Laurelwood in Memphis.