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The Watcher in the Woods by Kelley Armstrong

Reviewed by Wendy Hawkin

Who is The Watcher in the Woods?

Book Four in Kelley Armstrong’s Casey Duncan crime series follows fresh on the heels of Book Three; in fact, it’s so fresh the bodies are still decomposing in the woods. Without divulging too many spoilers, one of the men who pursued the serial killer in the last story is shot in the back. A bullet is lodged near Kenny’s spine and there are no surgeons in Rockton—just a butcher who was once a psychiatrist.

Intent on saving Kenny’s life, Detective Casey Duncan and Sheriff Eric Dalton fly secretly to Vancouver to appeal to the best neurosurgeon they know: Casey’s older sister. They must sneak her into town for security reasons. Of course, in a town the size of Rockton, it’s hard to sneak anybody anywhere. The introduction of April as a major character opens up Casey’s family history and peels more layers from her backstory. But the sisters’ relationship is tenuous as April is about as gifted and gregarious as “House.”

Rockton is a town built on secrets. Imagine living in a place in the middle of the Yukon wilderness. A place that is not on a map or visible by plane or satellite or hooked up to the Internet. A place hidden from the world. Imagine that everyone who lives there, all two hundred of you, have been brought here for a reason. Refuge. You’re either a victim of crime or a criminal yourself. The butcher may have murdered his entire family. The madam who runs the bordello may have ripped off the elderly for their life savings. Your neighbour may have been a hit man for the mob. It’s an idyllic prison, of sorts. Even our fearless detective is hiding out for a reason: she is a killer. Not a “line of duty” kind of killer—a “woman who went looking for a man with a gun in her pocket” kind of killer.

Into that mix, throw a man who claims to be a U.S. Federal Marshal in search of a fugitive. Let him track down the hidden town, watch from the woods, then come in bold-faced and search among the townspeople for his target. Idealism turns to chaos. Everyone is certain the marshal is there to drag him or her back to face justice. The marshal claims the person he is seeking appears normal but is criminally insane—a description that fits several of Rockton’s residents. But he won’t reveal who he’s hunting. Now, what would happen if the marshal was found murdered? If indeed he is a marshal. How difficult would it be to determine who shot him?

With a police force of three, a volunteer militia, and an unreliable council who deals out its own brand of justice, anything can happen. In the previous book, the leader of the council was removed. I won’t tell you how that happened. But, the new leader is adversarial and just as sketchy as his predecessor.

The romantic sub-plot takes a back seat in this book. Now that Casey and Eric have settled into their relationship, Casey focuses on protecting her newly-adopted town from itself. She suspects everyone of murdering the U.S. Marshal, except her boyfriend. Even her estranged sister, who appeared in Rockton at the same time as the man, is suspect.

And then there are the hostiles—residents who’ve left Rockton to take up residence in the wilderness. Intriguing and terrifying, these shadow-creatures are something between reavers and zombies. With just a hint of humanity, they appear when least expected. In this book, Armstrong throws in a delicious twist that makes us wonder how they evolved—or rather devolved. Fodder for another sequel? Please.

Armstrong’s clean, tight, present-tense narration propels this crime thriller through rock-strewn paths to the big reveal. With a town like Rockton, and so much more to learn about Casey Duncan and her partner, Eric Dalton, this series could go on indefinitely. The Watcher in the Woods is published by Penguin Random House Canada.

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