Margaret Mizushima: Hanging Falls

This novel will be published on September 8.  You can pre-order it here.

Margaret Mizushima must have been a fan of Nancy Drew as a child, as she has the narrative gift familiar to lovers of Carolyn Keene of leaving a little cliff hanger at the end of each chapter (or novel, as the case may be).  I love series fiction for many reasons, but a big reason is visiting and checking in with the continuing lives of characters I’ve come to know and love, just as I loved checking in with Nancy, George and Bess when I was a girl.

With Mattie Cobb, Mizushima has created a character for readers to relish and relate to, as well as to be invested in.  Mattie is a K9 officer in a small Colorado town and her partnership with her dog, Robo, is one of the joys of the books, as are the descriptions of the incredible wild landscape surrounding Mattie.  As the book opens, Mattie has agreed to meet her friend (and fellow cop) Stella, at Hanging Falls.  Robo sets a tough pace as the two head uphill, but the two women meet and set off together, only to discover a body in the falls.

Both women are afraid the body will be washed away by the heavy currents, and so they devise a plan to drag it out.  It’s a magnificent set piece to open the novel, kind of like the baby-buggy scene in The Untouchables (1987).  It’s the kind of memorable set piece that sets a tone for the rest of the narrative. Suffice it to say (as I refuse to dim your own enjoyment of reading this bit of the book) the body is recovered and the search for who it might be leads Mattie and Stella to a new encampment of evangelical Christians in town, whose life style appears to be a mix of Mormon and Amish.

In the parallel universe where Mattie’s boyfriend, Cole Walker, a vet, operates, he meets one of the women from the compound and is himself intrigued by the family and especially by one of the daughter’s love for the German Shepard the family brings to the office for an x-ray. Cole’s expertise allows Mizushima to share even more details of animal life with her readers, and in this novel the focus is on horses.

Balanced on top of the mystery itself is the story of the developing relationship between Mattie and Cole, the sullen disapproval of his daughter, Angie, for their relationship, and Mattie’s imminent meeting with her sister.  The two haven’t seen each other since babyhood, and the paths the two women have followed in life have taken very different trajectories.

To me the mystery part of this novel vied with the story of Mattie’s meeting with her sister in terms of importance and interest.  Through now six novels, Mizushima has teased out Mattie’s background.  Two books ago (Burning Ridge) Mattie was faced with the loss of her brother.  In this novel, she’s reunited with family, instead of losing a member of it, but the emotional moment of the sisters meeting has been so well prepared for by the talented Mizushima throughout the novels that it really packed a punch.  I think I cried as much as they did.

The theme of family – both Mattie’s, Cole’s, and the families in the religious compound – drive the narrative and the emotional truth of this book. These books are compulsively readable, and I am looking forward already to whatever Mizushima plans for her next installment.