This first novel can almost be slotted into a new subgenre – “dog lit.” It joins excellent books by Margaret Mizushima and Robert Crais in featuring working dogs (this one ex-military) who have a damaged human partner. (There’s another one in the works from well known dog lover Owen Laukkanen.) Like Mizushima’s novels, this one has a wonderful feel for setting, in this case, the Vermont woods.
The main character, Mercy Carr, is back from Afghanistan with her partner’s dog, Elvis. Both are mourning the loss of Mercy’s partner, Martinez, and woman and dog are walking the woods together, trying to move past PTSD and become more of a unit. As the book opens they are out in the woods and Elvis finds a baby in a carrier with no mother in sight.
Mercy takes the baby and heads for civilization – and a doctor – and encounters fish and game warden Troy Warner. Together they follow Elvis as he “alerts” again, this time finding a human bone. The follow up to Elvis’ find and their trek together with the baby bonds them, but even more, it bonds Mercy to the baby and makes her want to discover what kind of mother would abandon her baby in the woods.
The story gets trickier when the baby disappears from the hospital shortly after Mercy brings her in. When a body is discovered linked to the baby’s mother, the investigation grows exponentially. While the investigation part was really well done – and sprinkled with Shakespeare quotations, something I always appreciate – what really interested me in this novel was the relationship between Mercy and Elvis, and to a degree, the one that’s obviously blossoming between Mercy and Troy.
The best side bar character is Mercy’s fierce grandmother Patience, a vet who tends to Elvis as well as to Mercy’s mental well being. This is a densely textured novel, full of rich settings and characters and a tricky plot that holds your attention. The connection between the baby and her mother and the mother to the rest of the story is a tricky and twisted thread that winds through the novel.
The small town setting and Mercy’s place in that universe are nicely explored, as is Troy’s tenuous connection to a case that he really should have nothing to do with as he’s a fish and game warden, not a detective. This is a very fine first novel and Mercy and Elvis are two characters I’d be more than willing to revisit.