Ransom River

  • Meg Gardiner
  • Dutton
  • 368 pp.

This award-winning writer of two crime series renders up a new protagonist for those who like a bit of star-crossed romance in their mysteries.

Meg Gardiner dedicates Ransom River to Stephen King, without elaborating on the way King changed her life.

An American living in London with her husband and children, Gardiner writes thrillers set in California. She found a British publisher, but for years no U.S. publisher would take a chance on her books. Then Stephen King picked up one of her paperbacks in an airport bookshop, read it on his flight home from London, and told the world in a magazine column that this American writer deserved to be published at home. Several major U.S. imprints promptly offered her contracts on the strength of King’s recommendation, and American editions of her backlist titles began appearing, along with new books. A couple of years ago, she won an Edgar Award, the highest honor in the world of crime fiction.

Gardiner is the author of two series, one featuring forensic psychiatrist Jo Beckett, who aids police by doing “psychological autopsies” of murder victims, and the other focusing on Evan Delaney, an attorney and freelance journalist, whose involvement in criminal cases is less official. In Ransom River, Gardiner leaves behind these sophisticated professionals to write about Rory Mackenzie, a young woman forced to return to the rural California hometown she despises when her career plans fall apart and she has nowhere else to turn.

As the story opens, Rory is a juror in the murder trial of two police officers who killed a man in an on-duty incident. The dead man’s father is a shady character with widespread influence, and when two gunmen in masks storm the courtroom Rory figures they’ve come to settle the score on behalf of the grieving father. Everything starts going wrong, and the panicked men demand money and a means of escape. They plan to take Rory and three other jurors with them to guarantee their getaway.

Following the highly charged opening section that details the courthouse siege, the tension slackens, even as the police investigate Rory as a possible accomplice of the gunmen. They have virtually no evidence for their suspicion, and this flimsy threat to Rory doesn’t generate a sense of danger. However, she begins to believe, with good reason, that the siege was a botched attempt to kidnap her and she is still at risk. She’s frightened, but baffled. What would anyone gain by abducting her? She’s nobody, she’s broke, and her family is working class.

Not trusting the police to believe her or protect her, Rory turns for help to childhood friend and former lover Seth Colder, who is back in Ransom River on a mysterious but clearly dangerous mission. Together they explore the past, trying to discover why Rory has become a prize for kidnappers.

Flashbacks offer glimpses of Rory’s romance with Seth and the horrific accident that ended it, her clashes with two loathsome cousins and her close relationship with her uncle. As Rory and Seth dance around their reignited attraction to one another, they dredge up Mackenzie family secrets linked to an unsolved crime – secrets that make Rory the target of killers. The motivation for the attacks seems the weakest aspect of the plot, because it requires some leaps in logic and a major supposition. Considering the warped minds of the people who are after Rory, though, it almost makes sense in context.

Rory is a likable, appealingly flawed young woman who has to withstand explosive revelations about her family, but she isn’t as sharply drawn and engaging as Gardiner’s series heroines. Although the publisher bills Ransom River as a standalone thriller, at the end Gardiner throws enough intriguing complications into Rory’s life to make readers wonder if they will play out in future books. All the pieces are in place if Gardiner decides to pick them up and continue Rory’s story in a sequel.

Despite lapses in the plot, Ransom River is an entertaining story that will please readers who like a little star-crossed romance in their mysteries. Gardiner isn’t a prose stylist and readers won’t find memorable literary flourishes in these pages, but her straightforward language serves the story well, especially in the perfectly rendered opening section and the action-filled climax. If you want to see what made Stephen King rave about Gardiner’s writing, though, I recommend you read her two series.


Sandra Parshall is the author of the Rachel Goddard mystery/suspense novels. Her first book, The Heat of the Moon, won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. Her fifth, Bleeding Through, will be published Sept.5. She lives in Northern Virginia.

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