Two gay men near Asheville, North Carolina, are brutally murdered, possibly in connection with a backwater preacher’s shocking anti-gay bombast on YouTube, and North Carolina Governor Ann Chandler is worried. “Do you know how many CEOs have canceled meetings with me since that moron went viral?” the governor asks special prosecutor Mary Crow. “I’m sitting here looking at a ten percent unemployment rate, and Reverend Trull is yammering about creating a concentration camp for gays.” In Deadliest of Sins, Sallie Bissell’s sixth Mary Crow thriller, the governor wants Crow to investigate whether Homer Trull and his church of fanatical fundamentalists might have been behind the killings.
As Crow plans her investigative strategy, she gets a visit from eleven-year-old Chase Buchanan, an awkward but clearly intelligent young man who has hitched a ride on a peach truck to see her. Holding a newspaper clipping about Crow, Chase pleads with her to help find his older sister, Samantha, who has gone missing after borrowing their stepfather’s car to get to a babysitting job. The car was found on Highway 74 in Campbell County, where other teenage girls have also disappeared. The stepfather is a former cop who still holds sway with local law enforcement, and he insists the girl has run off with a boyfriend. But his new big-spending ways—since Sam’s disappearance he has bought both a motorcycle and a tractor—have convinced Chase that the man has somehow sold his sister into the underworld.
In fact, as readers learn early in the novel, Sam has been lured into a trap set by human traffickers. When she awakens, she is locked in an old hotel room with boarded-up windows and is in the care of a cadre of men with foreign accents. They seem to know she is a virgin and therefore a valuable commodity. In one particularly unsettling scene, a doctor is even sent in to confirm her virginity.
Bissell, who grew up in Nashville but now lives in Asheville, tells this story by alternating the focus on each of the three primary characters: Mary Crow, Chase, and Samantha. The structure is highly effective, as each new development for one character acts as a kind of teaser for the next, urging the reader forward with each successive chapter. The treatment of Chase at the hands of his cruel stepfather is dark and disturbing, but the narrative about Samantha is even more chilling. Fortunately there is comfort to be found in knowing that Mary Crow always gets the bad guys. And that the governor is a woman.