There are no secrets like grave secrets

“Secrets to the Grave,” by Tami Hoag. Dutton. 450 pages. $26.95.

In her latest thriller, New York Times best-selling novelist Tami Hoag presents a complex, multi-faceted study in criminal detection, psychological aberration, trauma recovery, and small town power dynamics. Set in fictional Oak Knoll, an upscale community north of Los Angeles, “Secrets to the Grave” continues the setting and principal characters introduced in Ms. Hoag’s recent “Deeper Than the Dead.” Even while local law enforcement officers remain occupied with a serial killer investigation, a new and gruesome murder demands their attention. 

A young single mother and rising artist, Marissa Fordham, is found dead in her home, her breasts amputated and missing. The attractive woman’s daughter, four year old Hayley, is the terrified witness – but one who has blocked out the traumatic experience. Near-victim Anne Navarre, the main witness in the ongoing trial against the serial killer whose crimes are detailed in “Deeper Than the Dead,” takes on the unofficial role of temporary custodian for Hayley. Anne is a local school teacher, trained child advocate, and new wife of Vince Leone, a retired FBI agent who consults for the county sheriff’s department and is a central figure in the new case.

The investigation pursues the answers to a series of questions. Why is there no record of Marissa’s life before she showed up in Oak Knoll about four years back? Who is Hayley’s father? Who would have the motive and opportunity to perform such a brutal murder? How did Marissa gain the patronage of the powerful socialite and self-styled art connoisseur Milo Bourdain? What is the meaning of Marissa’s breasts being mailed to Milo, whose wealthy husband Bruce is a reputed philanderer?

Tami Hoag, photo by Jan Cobb

Sheriff’s detective Tony Mendez becomes the primary investigator, assisted and mentored by Vince Leone, partnered with Bill Hicks, and under the supervision of the county sheriff, Cal Dixon. Each of these professionals, and several others, is neatly characterized and differentiated.

Suspects include primarily the Oak Knoll men who have had some kind of relationship with Marissa – men she had dated or been seen with. These include Steve Morgan, the wife of Marissa’s friend Sara. Morgan, who had been connected to the victims in the See-No-Evil serial killer case, was a friend of Peter Crane, the man on trial. They also include Milo Bourdain’s son Darren; McCaster College music department head Mark Foster; and weird mathematics genius Alexander Zahn, a friendly neighbor who frequently visits Marissa but whose strange behavior makes many townspeople uneasy.

One person is likely to have information that will move the investigation forward – Marissa’s best friend, Gina  Kemmer. When Gina is suddenly found to be missing just before she’s to be interviewed, the investigation is handicapped and a second one begins. If Gina knows what Marissa Fordham knew, then she’s likely to become a victim of the same killer.

To read this review in its entirety, as it appeared in the Fort Myers (January 26, 2011) and Naples (January 27) editions of Florida Weekly, click here: Florida Weekly – Tami Hoag pdf. The piece appeared later in the March 24 issue of the Palm Beach Gardens Florida Weekly.

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