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By Mary Daheim

Ballantine, 2011 ($25.00)
ISBN-10: 0345502574
ISBN-13: ISBN: 978-0-345-50257-5 e-Book ISBN: 978-0-345-51909-2

Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel

Emma Lord, editor and publisher of the Alpine Advocate, and the other residents of her town are incensed at the poachers who have been denuding the local forests of the old growth maple trees. Try as they might, the local law enforcement agencies haven't been able to catch the crooks in the act. A report comes in that a man with a gunshot wound has been found near the illegal logging site. The man is a local recluse called "Old Nick" by most of the townfolk. He's rushed to the hospital for treatment. Sheriff Milo Dodge suspects the man may have been shot by one of the poachers, but Old Nick claims he remembers nothing.

"Nick" is actually Craig Laurentis, a talented painter, not a penniless hermit. Emma herself owns one of his paintings, a tranquil mountain scene. The owner of the local art gallery tells Emma he had dropped off a new painting recently, and wants her opinion. She is shocked to see how different it is from his usual work, dark, mysterious, and vaguely threatening, the only color two small blobs of gold. Craig and Emma have a history, and he trusts her, so Dodge asks her to try to get him to talk. He stonewalls her too. She asks him about the meaning of his new painting, but his reply is ambiguous.

Emma's life is complicated. Her office is left short-handed just before Thanksgiving, and she is pushed into hiring Denise Petersen, a total ditz who couldn't even keep a job in the bank her grandfather owned.

Her love life is complicated as well. The suave journalist, Ralf, who invited her to live with him in Paris, then dumped her when she declined, is trying to win her back by sending a gigantic gift basket from France, but she is not amused, or interested. She and her off-again-on again lover, Sheriff Dodge, are on again, but she wonders if there's any future in their relationship, or if she even wants one. Running the newspaper and solving the occasional mystery might be all she needs — except for a romp in the sack with the sheriff every so often.

Sheriff Dodge asks for her input on an anonymous letter he'd just received stating that Larry Petersen, one of Denise's relatives who was convicted of killing his sister and sent to prison several years ago, is innocent. Shortly after the letter arrived, Dodge learns that Petersen had just died of a heart attack. Other letters follow, more and more demanding and threatening. Emma gets one accusing her of not convincing Dodge to take the claim more seriously. A surprise source announces that he'd been to see Petersen a week before his death, and the prisoner retracted his confession, saying he did not kill his sister. He didn't reveal who did kill her, which probably meant he'd been protecting the real murderer. Emma and Dodge discover the killer might still be around, maybe closer than they know.

As usual with this series, there are plenty of characters, some more colorful than others, a plethora of suspects, and a plot with many separate strands that end up woven into an intricate tapestry. Vida Runkel, a columnist on the paper and Emma's best friend, knows everybody in the county, knows who they are or were married to or divorced from, and in general is a fount of knowledge about all things Alpine. With her help, the finished picture finally emerges.

A foreword states that the action in this book takes place in November-December, 2004. Since it takes up just a few months from where it left off in the previous book, apparently the whole series is set a few years back from the present, although I don't recall seeing that in the earlier books. This is number twenty-two in the Alpine series. Ms. Daheim also writes a Bed and Breakfast series set in Seattle.

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