Book Review: Small-town politics and big family drama drive crime thriller 'Where the Dead Sleep'

“Where the Dead Sleep” by Joshua Moehling (Poisoned Pen Press)

“Where the Dead Sleep” begins pleasantly enough: Detective Ben Packard is back, becoming more comfortable with Sandy Lake, making his rounds as acting sheriff at the small Minnesota town’s Labor Day weekend celebration.

But we can’t have a murder mystery without a murder, and before he can even remember the name of the drummer he hooked up with after the celebrations, Packard gets called out to the crime that will take center stage in Joshua Moehling’s anticipated sequel to the Ben Packard series: Bill is found dead in his bed with two bullets in him and a wife who heard only one shot and didn’t see anything. It’s a strange case from the start, as it’s quickly revealed that Bill’s wife, Carrie, is the sister of his ex-wife, Sherri. And the family drama doesn’t end there.

Beyond the ongoing investigation, there’s the matter of Packard’s future. As acting sheriff, he could be taking on a lot more bureaucracy when the current sheriff, sick with cancer, dies. But Packard doesn’t want to give up detective work and, frankly, the readers don’t either.

If Packard becomes sheriff, how’s he going to keep doing detective work that makes for interesting stories? But it’s also unfathomable that he would lose — he’s the hero of the story and the only qualified candidate for the job.

“Where the Dead Sleep” sticks the landing after a puttering start. Any doubts I had going in were quelled by a twist halfway through that was so surprising and darkly comical I snorted. This is where things really pick up.

And if you think you’ve got the mystery solved in the first few chapters, you’re dead wrong. Moehling has some tricks up his sleeve and gravitates toward challenging ideas and interesting surprises.

It’s a cat-and-mouse game as the clues start to emerge, slowly at first, then quickly as the truth begins to materialize. As an added layer, the series through-line of Packard’s missing brother, Nick — the cold case from almost 30 years ago that was eventually closed with no body — finally takes the spotlight. After spending half the novel wondering “what’s in the box?!” it ends with a huge cliffhanger that’s only slightly remedied by Moehling’s promise that “all will be revealed in the third book.”

The narration rambles like a Minnesota Long Goodbye — at times annoying and other times comforting in its familiarity. I don’t need to know all the ingredients and processes for Packard’s chicken and potato dinner. It just made me hungry.

But the ramblings provide a strong sense of place and community, as well as the chance for Easter eggs — like the fun meta layer of the town mystery thriller writer, Jim Henkel, who it turns out closely followed the Emmett Burr case as detailed in Moehling’s debut, “And There He Kept Her.”

And, like the fictional author, I’ll be waiting and watching to find out what happens next in the Ben Packard series.