In Paradise, WV, the new novel by Nashville-based writer and musician Rob Rufus, fallout from the opioid epidemic in West Virginia pervades the narrative. It serves as a backdrop of hopelessness to the unsettling tale of madness and murder Rufus unfolds.
The little town of Paradise has definitely seen better days, as sympathetic sheriff’s lieutenant Elena Garcia observes: “It was jarring to watch a town die. … Painkillers hit the area like an atom bomb, and she had arrived in time to do nothing but bear witness to the slow, painful death of all that survived the initial blast.” One character describes the town as “dying off piece by piece, like municipal leprosy.” And of the local Parthenon Place Trailer Park, another character quips, “Named after the Parthenon ’cause every trailer in Paradise has its own Greek tragedy playing out inside.”
Into this bleak landscape comes Otis Perkins, a 15-year-old speed-reading genius with a full scholarship to Duke University and an obsession with true-crime books. He especially likes the ones in which justice prevails, because in his family, “crime struck blindly, justice went unserved, and victims suffered in perpetuity.” Two years earlier, his father was brutally beaten during a mugging and became addicted to painkillers not long after. Otis’ family lost everything due to his dad’s illness and eventually found their way to Paradise. Because he’s new in town, Otis doesn’t know that this small community has its own true-crime legend: the Blind Spot Slasher (BSS), so named because the killer mutilates victims’ eyes. When Otis unexpectedly makes a friend of high school sophomore Henry Lusher, the son of the man imprisoned for the dozen murders attributed to BSS, Otis decides to help Henry and his older sister Jane prove their father’s innocence.
Life hasn’t been easy for Henry and Jane since their father’s incarceration six years earlier. Their mother died of cancer two years later, and the kids now live with their Mammaw, a fiercely protective, no-nonsense, weed-smoking hippie with a fat little dog named Gravyboat. Jane is a soccer star praying for a college scholarship to get her out of town, as she manages her anxiety with medication and dodges daily bullying from her mean-girl teammates. Henry is a lonely, long-haired metalhead with a limp who is determined to prove his dad was framed, even if he has to sell BSS T-shirts and other memorabilia to obsessed “fans” online to raise the money for a private investigator. As the children of a convicted serial killer, the Lusher siblings don’t exactly fit in. According to Mammaw, “The town was spiteful, even on its deathbed, and Paradise made sure Henry and Jane knew they’d never be welcome.”
When a scandal-mongering podcast called Best Kill Ever! comes to town to record a program on BSS, complete with a pop-up “Murder Museum” filled with grisly crime scene photos and even a replica of the “death pit” where numerous bodies were found, long-buried anger and pain erupt throughout the community. As Otis and the Lushers gather clues about possible connections between the murders and a decades-old local religious cult, Lt. Garcia investigates the disappearance of a high school girl on the night of the podcast and begins to fear there might be a BSS copycat killer in town. Rufus skillfully raises the stakes and the level of suspense ever higher as the characters move closer to the answers they seek — however horrifying they may be. Modern murder mystery fans will not be able to tear their eyes away from Paradise, WV, until the final shocking twist.
Tina Chambers has worked as a technical editor at an engineering firm and as an editorial assistant at Peachtree Publishers, where she worked on books by Erskine Caldwell, Will Campbell, and Ferrol Sams, to name a few. She lives in Chattanooga.
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