Finding Sky: A Nicki Valentine Mystery (Volume 1)

  • By Susan O'Brien
  • Henery Press
  • 276 pp.

A new mystery series introduces a likable P.I. in the making, along with a mess of trouble.

Looking for a light, worthwhile beach read (in January)? If so, look no further than Susan O’Brien’s Finding Sky, in which issues of motherhood, female friendship, and romantic love are dissected and embraced. This is O’Brien’s first volume of her new missing-person mystery series.

Our protagonist, Nicki Valentine, is a suburban mom of two whose cheating husband died while with his lover. Nicki has largely moved past it, but she recognizes the loss to her children, 4-year-old Sophie and 6-year-old Jack.

She is a stay-at-home mom but has lately become a private investigator in training. This proves convenient for her best friend, Kenna, who is having problems locating Beth, the birth mother of the child she plans to adopt. Adding to the tension, the birth father is in a gang; this presents no small concern for everyone involved.

Beth is 18 years old and 38 weeks pregnant. She has disappeared before, to her grandparents’ home, but this time seems different because of her nefarious former boyfriend. Her parents have not been helpful in locating the teen, so Nicki takes the case.

As a character, Nicki is interesting and likeable — I’d be friends with her. When talking about why she wants to be a P.I., she says, “Truth was I had enough [money] to survive and plan for the future, but not enough to open bills without anxiety. Meanwhile, I had an insatiable appetite for understanding criminal cases and making things right...Soon I’d need a job with decent pay and intellectual stimulation.”

I’m sure any wronged spouse or at-home mom can empathize. The bond between Nicki and Kenna also feels interesting and authentic.  For example, Kenna is terrible at using computers and other forms of technology and Nicki accepts this, while also laughing at it — just like any true friend.

Kenna’s husband, meanwhile, is never completely comfortable with the intimacy between the women, a position that seems patriarchal and controlling, yet realistic.

Nicki, though, must re-evaluate her friendship with Kenna once she realizes there are many details about the adoption Kenna had not previously opened up about, including the birth mom’s name.  I found all of those developments relatable and provocative.

One storytelling device I found trite and manipulative, however, was the way in which a smart woman such as Nicki has to puzzle through her romantic feelings for Dean, her extremely handsome and seemingly-available teacher/mentor at P.I. school. I suppose the author is trying to prove her protagonist is modest, but the reader easily sees the romantic attraction. The more times this happens, the more annoying it becomes.

Perhaps I’m alone in this, but the climax of a mystery novel is never the point for me. I usually don’t mind the resolution, whatever it is — I love mysteries for the character studies they are. Still, I ultimately needed to reread the ending of Finding Sky because the conclusion was not the high point of the book for me.

As a reader, I wish I knew more about the romantic duplicity of Nicki’s husband and her subsequent decision to become a detective. But maybe that will be explained in upcoming Nicki Valentine mysteries, which I’ll dive into on a future day — hopefully during the summer, with warm sand between my toes.

JR Scrafford is a senior review editor for the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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