Every so often, the Pisgah County Police Department reopens the cold case that is colder, and more frustrating, than any other: the 1989 murder of ten-year-old Teresa Ewing. And when that happens, it turns the lives of the people who were once her friends into a nightmare. On the receiving end of most of the community suspicion and creepy intimidation tactics are forty-year-old Zack Collier, who is autistic, and his mother, Grace. Which is why they turn to Mary Crow, the series protagonist of Sallie Bissell’s latest mystery, A Judgment of Whispers.
This time, the search for the little girl’s killer is being resurrected because retired Detective Jack Wilkins has never been able to give up on the case, the only one in his career that he couldn’t clear. One restless morning while his wife is out of town, he wanders to the neighborhood where Teresa Ewing lived and died, to the giant Spanish oak in whose exposed root system she was found dead weeks after her disappearance. He wants to see the neighborhood one more time before a construction crew razes the old homes for a new development. That’s when a stray he names Lucky digs up a plastic sandwich bag that contains a pair of little girl’s panties.
When testing confirms that the underwear was in fact manufactured in the late 1980s, police interest in the cast of characters who lived there and played with Teresa Ewing on the day she went missing is once again rekindled. That’s bad news for everyone involved, all but one of whom have suffered in adulthood from that childhood trauma. But the worst of the terrorizing lands squarely on the Colliers, even as Grace struggles to juggle care of her special-needs son and her teaching career.
Grace is part Cherokee, just like her friend Mary Crow, a tough lawyer who has successfully tried capital cases and is now running to replace the county’s misogynistic district attorney. Though it’s a political risk for a would-be prosecutor to defend Zack, who has always been a suspect in the case, Crow does it anyway. “Mary, you’re running for DA—to prosecute crime,” her campaign manager says when she hears the news. “How can you possibly square that with defending someone involved with the most infamous murder in the county?”
Bissell, a Nashville native who splits her time between her hometown and Asheville, North Carolina, sets her thrillers in the Appalachians, a bonus for Southern lovers of the genre, and weaves Cherokee history and language into her books. Her storytelling pace is clear and steady, not breakneck and breathless, and readers can count on unpredictability as payoff. Her mysteries are always good company, and A Judgment of Whispers, the fifth in the Mary Crow series, is no exception.
Liz Garrigan is a senior editor at Worldcrunch, which delivers global journalism to English-language readers. Formerly the editor of the Nashville Scene, Garrigan now lives in Paris, France.