Flynn Berry’s lightning fast and devastating novel, Under the Harrow, begins with Nora walking into the most horrific scene that anyone can blunder into. Nora is planning to spend the weekend at her sister’s house, only to walk in to find that her sister has been brutally murdered. The book never lets up after this shocking discovery and we ride along as a grief-stricken Nora tries to find out who did it.
Nora is, obviously, a wreck when the police start to ask her questions. But she is able to give the police a lead or two. She tells the lead detective about Rachel’s assault as a teenager and how they used to try to find out who did it. Maybe that man came back, she suggests. But then, Nora also sees red flags everywhere. While the police follow the evidence, Nora follows hunches and bits of memory. She asks the police to look into a local man she finds creepy. She leads them to a stalker’s hideout near Rachel’s house.
As she investigates on her own, Nora finds out that she didn’t know her sister as well as she thought she did. This is a brief book, but it is absolutely jam-packed with red herrings and twists. It’s truly astonishing how much Berry packs into this story. Not only is this book crammed with plot, but it’s also deft in its portrayal of the way grief can derail someone’s mind. Nora makes some bad decisions that are hard to witness; I wanted to yell into the book at her more than once. That said, Nora’s grief also makes her determined to make sure her sister’s killer is caught even when the police are ready to give up and wait for new evidence.
It’s not unusual for detectives to be under some kind of emotional duress in fiction. They might have a drinking problem or family pressures that keep them from being totally focused on the case. Some, like Jo Nesbø‘s Harry Hole, have emotional and physical baggage. But I’ve never see a mystery from the perspective of the relative of a murder victim. That perspective makes Under the Harrow one of the most effective murder tales I’ve ever encountered.