Monday, April 22, 2024

#Review - Next of Kin by Samantha Jayne Allen #Mystery #Suspense

 Annie McIntyre Mysteries (#3)
Format: Hardcover, 336 pages
Release Date: April 23, 2024
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Source: Publisher
Genre: Mystery / Suspense

From Tony Hillerman Prize-winning author Samantha Jayne Allen comes Next of Kin, a mesmerizing new novel set in a hardscrabble Texas town, where the past is never far away.

At a gathering for her cousin’s wedding party, newly-licensed PI Annie McIntyre gets asked an age-old question: what really makes us who we are, nature or nurture? Clint Marshall, an up-and-coming musician and an adoptee at a personal crossroads, wants to hire Annie to find his biological parents, and that question is on his mind. Annie accepts his case, not knowing then that she, too, must decide if she really believes what she tells him that night—in essence, that people are in charge of their destinies. That people can change.

When Annie discovers her client's father is a bank robber who her granddad, Leroy, arrested back when he was sheriff, reverberations sound between the past and the present, igniting old flames and rivalries. When the brother of her client dies suddenly, his death ruled a suicide, Annie questions whether or not it was in fact homicide—and who in this family of outlaws would rather some secrets stay buried.

As Annie sets out to find who killed the brother—and stays out of sight lest she be next—she finds herself searching abandoned, overgrown fields, scouring pool halls and roadside motels, wondering if she will ever escape the sense that her world in Garnett, TX expands and contracts in off-kilter ways, growing smaller and yet still more confounding. Fearing that in a place where everyone knows everyone, your enemy is always closer than you think.

Next of Kin, by Samantha Jayne Allen, is the third installment in the author's Annie McIntyre Mysteries series. It has been a year since Annie McIntyre became part of the McIntyre Investigations as a private investigator with her senior partner Mary Pat Zimmerman with a bit of help from her grandfather Leroy McIntyre, a former Sheriff of Garnett, Texas. 

At a gathering for her cousin’s wedding party, Annie gets asked an age-old question: what really makes us who we are, nature or nurture? Clint Marshall, an up-and-coming musician and an adoptee at a personal crossroads, wants to hire Annie to find his biological parents, and that question is on his mind. Adoptive parents don’t always want to be known or found and old wounds can be deep. 

Annie accepts his case, not knowing then that she, too, must decide if she really believes what she tells him that night—in essence, that people are in charge of their destinies. That people can change. She also takes it upon herself to find Clint's family including a brother who doesn't live that far away. When his brother dies under mysterious circumstances and it's ruled a suicide by the local Sheriff, that doesn't sit well with Annie. 

Annie questions whether or not it was in fact homicide—and who in this family of outlaws would rather some secrets stay buried. When Annie discovers her client's father is a bank robber whom her granddad, Leroy, arrested back when he was sheriff, reverberations sound between the past and the present, igniting old flames and rivalries. Annie also stumbles on another broken and wounded family. 

A teen went missing years ago, and her mother is still angry, broken, and blaming a certain retired Sheriff for not doing enough to find her daughter. She truly believes that if someone had listened to her years before, her daughter would have been found alive. To make matters even more disturbing, Clint vanishes leaving a message behind that says he's going to Nashville to become a country music star and breaking up with his girlfriend who seems to be neither concerned nor worried. 

And, let's not forget that Annie has a very dangerous enemy. Eli Wallace is a local drug dealer who knows that Annie is talking to the DEA about his operation. When Cody dies, Eli takes it very personally and puts Annie on notice that he's not done with her yet. Eli considered Cody to be kin, and when you mess with Eli's kin, Eli seeks vengeance on those responsible.  

*Thoughts* Even though Eli's storyline is a carryover from a previous installment, this story can be read as a standalone. There is a mystery that turns into a twisted family saga you really have to pay attention to the clues so that when the real villains stand up, you won't be surprised. I liked that Annie can rely on Leroy when she gets stuck with situations that she may or may not be able to get out of herself. I also like the relationship between Annie and her parents who seem supportive no matter what she does. 

Chapter One

I settled in behind the wheel and took a deep, rib cage–opening breath. Wyatt buckled his seat belt and I turned the ignition. We were running late to my cousin’s party after our cat, Tate, refused to let me catch him and put him up for the night. Wasn’t about to let the devil stay out past dark and end up a coyote’s supper, but he’d tried me.

Our house, a limestone seventies ranch we rented out in the country, shrank in the rearview as I pulled away. “Did you turn the hose off?” I asked.


“You’re sure?”

He reached over, gently cupped the back of my head in his hand. He liked to touch my hair when I wore it down. “You’re stalling. Quit trying to get out of this.”

I laughed—he was right and he wasn’t. I wanted to celebrate my cousin Nikki and her fiancé, Sonny, but always found it hard to leave that little house behind. That slice of time between sunset and nightfall when we watered the tomato plants and peppers, talked—that was what I’d be missing. Wyatt cranked the AC and I turned down the farm-to-market road toward town. Life is long. Hard to see a shape or any kind of arc while you’re living it. I never thought I’d be living this life—a good life, but one of a million possible options. Decent options. I could’ve stayed gone after college and never come home to Garnett, and who knew what would’ve happened then. But, also, being with Wyatt felt like a cascading row of dominoes. Click after satisfying click. He was someone I felt my truest self around.

Clint, Sonny’s brother and also his best man, had offered to host a get-together for the wedding party at his place. The address was on a nice, sycamore-lined street in the older part of town. I parked in a line of cars that stretched from the driveway down the block. Smoke hazed the air, tinting the blue dusk bluer. The smell wafted over me as I got out and I straightened my neck. No crispness to the breeze, no hint of fall. This smell was an alarm sounding in the animal part of my brain. Like when our neighbors burned trash in the pasture and the wind changed course—stinging, sour. I looked at Wyatt. “Where’s that coming from?”

Wyatt stretched, swept his eyes over a sky ribbed with pink and dark purple. “Another wildfire west of town, I’ll bet.”

We’d had a long, dry summer after a wet and volatile spring. The land as it was now reminded me of the chaparral in old westerns, with its cacti, mesquite, and gnarled live oaks punctuating an endless brown. A tumbleweed had even rolled down Main Street the other day. Nights like this when it would stay a hundred out, I felt a slow-building panic, a sense of waltzing into the impending apocalypse. But that was August in Garnett every year: hot as hell and quite literally on fire. I grabbed a six-pack of Shiner from the backseat of the bullet—I drove a used Pontiac I’d dubbed the silver bullet on account of my superstitious nature and its color. Dinged up and not much to look at now, but it got me where I was going.

We cut across the grass toward the white bungalow. Wyatt’s fingers grazed mine, but it was too hot to hold hands, and neither of us were really hand-holders anyway. I moved mine to his waist, my thumb through his belt loop. The wide front porch had string lights tacked onto the railing, which a couple of old bikes leaned up against. It was crowded with cardboard cases of crushed beer cans. The front door was open, laughter spilling out. Nikki, bride-to-be, saw us coming and met us in the hall, wrapping me in a sweaty hug. She wore a white eyelet sundress that flattered her, her mess of blond curls bouncing around her shoulders. I spied her other bridesmaids not far behind, another cousin of mine using her car keys to shotgun a beer.

“What’s up?” Nikki said, a bite in her voice.

“You look great. That’s a cute dress,” I said, figuring she was nervous. “Sorry we’re late.”

A pretty woman with long, balayage’d hair met us in the hall. She twisted her hands, letting out a deep breath as though she’d been eagerly awaiting us. Tall, thin, and angular, she looked like a model. Sharp, contoured cheekbones a contrast to pillowy lips, a soft smile. She managed to pull off one of those prairie dresses that look dowdy on anyone but models. “Annie, right? Nikki’s said so much about you. I’m with Clint,” she said, leading us into the kitchen. “I’m Amanda.”

“Hey, nice to finally meet you,” I said, wiping my hand on my shorts—denim, a fashion nonchoice I now regretted—before offering it. “This is my boyfriend, Wyatt.”

They exchanged pleasantries as I looked over Wyatt’s shoulder. Clint had come in from the backyard. He sauntered through the living room with an acoustic guitar in one hand, a beer in the other. I normally would find the guitar red-flag behavior, but Clint Marshall was a real-deal musician. He’d opened for some big country acts on his last tour, and had a single on Spotify that was rumored to hit the Americana charts any day now. He looked the part of lead singer with his square jaw and handsome smile. His sandy, dirty-looking hair was loosely knotted into a bun, a strand left hanging into dark eyes. He adorned himself with turquoise rings and leather bracelets, with ink on his arms, black vines that traced his collarbone. He’d grown up around here, was around my age, our mothers had even been acquaintances, and yet I hadn’t known him before Sonny introduced us.

He laid the guitar on a stained, worn-out couch that looked like many a guy had passed out on it still wearing their shoes. The whole place had that vibe—like a house where fraternity brothers lived, or, I supposed, a band. I was pretty sure Clint had moved here alone, though, to be closer to his family. Nikki had said this was his and Sonny’s late father’s house, and it was a nice house despite the mess, with high ceilings, crown moldings, wooden built-ins. Like with the right décor it might’ve been on some HGTV special. Clint smiled and shrugged at me in the way of hello, and I nodded back.

Amanda clapped her hands together, turning her gaze on me. “Everyone like Patrón?”

“Girl, you’ve already done too much! That’s expensive, stop,” Nikki said, edging out Wyatt to stand between Amanda and me. Limes were sliced and in a neat pile on the cutting board, a dish of flaky salt beside them. There were cocktail napkins, homemade guacamole, three types of salsas, warm chips, veggie platters—all of this was on real plates, too. Despite Nikki’s protests, Amanda took a tray of shot glasses she’d been icing from the freezer and handed me the bottle of tequila. The whole presentation was a little at odds with the beer cans piling up and the lone box of Tombstone on the freezer shelf.

“We’re going to toast to you and Sonny,” Amanda said, mock stern. “In fact, Wyatt, how about you and Clint round up the others?”

Wyatt looked relieved to be given a task, and Clint clapped him on the back as they walked outside. He knew Sonny, of course, but none of the groomsmen, who were all Sonny’s friends from high school or his army buddies. Wyatt was always fun and laid-back at parties, but I knew part of his chillness was actually a preference to draw inward, be the one listening instead of doing the talking. He was curious—a quality I liked about him—though he sometimes came off as aloof or shy. There was an exuberance specific to weddings and wedding-adjacent events that tired him—tired me, too, for that matter.

I placed a lime on the rim of each glass, trying to pinpoint why I felt sheepish—because Amanda was being a good hostess, I realized. I needed to up my maid of honor game. When Nikki and Sonny got engaged last spring, I’d been openly skeptical. I knew they were in love, but worried they’d break each other’s hearts. They’d gotten engaged after only six months of dating, during which they’d split up twice. Besides that, Nikki was twenty-five, only a year and change older than me. Too young. Nikki liked to say she and Sonny kept each other on their toes, that if you fought you got to make up. Me and Wyatt, not our style. We’d been together since high school. Well, in high school, and later, after college when our paths detoured back to Garnett. The restlessness I felt about the future wasn’t him, though—I’d never wanted a relationship I had to guess at. No, my problem was like loving the wind but being afraid of flying. I’d always had a hard time being present, whether I wanted something different or was worried about losing what I had.

The rest of the wedding party trailed in behind Wyatt. Sonny took a tequila shot off the tray as I walked past him, whooped, and beat his chest. That was Sonny, happy to be here and proud to tell it. He grinned at me, giving me a quick sideways hug. I liked Sonny, I did. Even if at first I’d thought his keep-the-party-going persona made him shallow. I now saw his nature for what it was, that he was infected with a strong desire to please. He cared too much, and damn it if I didn’t know what that felt like.

“Here’s to the happy couple,” Amanda said, raising her glass.

Nikki sipped the shot. One of her false eyelashes was coming unglued and she blinked furiously, making her smile look forced. Sonny downed his and replaced it with a Marlboro, listing as he hooked his muscled arm around her. The ex-football player to Nikki’s ex-varsity cheerleader, he was also blond and tanned. Nikki had been on him to quit smoking—indoors, at least—and I braced myself for one of their play fights, likely to evolve into a real one if the tequila kept flowing.

Amanda cut her eyes between me and Sonny, giving me a knowing look. “So, Annie,” she said, raising her voice so that everyone could hear. “Sonny was telling us you’re a private detective. You must have some insane stories, yeah?”

“A few,” I said tightly. Didn’t mind talking about my work, but hated making light of the hard parts. Requests to tell crazy stories delivered in a bemused, slightly condescending tone often came to me at bars and at parties. And I got defensive, not because I was embarrassed, but because it mattered. Being a detective wasn’t a job to me; it was me. What started as a shaky-at-best situation—working for my ex-sheriff grandfather until I figured out what to do with my life—had become my life. Me, the straight-A student that always wanted a career-identity. I told myself it was ambition, this intensity, but my desires weren’t so much about competition or comparison anymore. I felt like my heart was flint in want of a whetstone. Maybe that was what people saw, what they also wanted—to glimpse the dark, to touch the sharp edges. Like a podcast come to life, they wanted me to lecture on the criminal mind in a deep, seductive voice, to give them a scare. Mostly, they wanted me to dish on other people’s secrets.

“Have you found killers and stuff like that?”

“It’s not usually like that,” I said, meeting Amanda’s wide-eyed gaze. “But yeah, I have.”

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