Sheriff Gavin Pruitt cuts a slightly incongruous figure as keeper of law and order in Willapa County, Washington – sure, he’s got an eye for detail and a firm dedication to justice. He’s a loving father and expectant grandfather. He has roots in the community and a close relationship with other local law enforcement. There’s just that part where he’s a former hippie and lifelong fan of the Grateful Dead. OK, honestly speaking – it’s not really all that unbelievable that a lawman in coastal Washington could be a Deadhead, but Gary McKinney’s publishers know a good hook when they see one. This is the second installment in a series (sequel to 2007’s Slipknot) but it’s new to Omaha Public Library, and stands alone just fine.
Darkness Bids the Dead Goodbye opens with a murder, and then with a concert – Pruitt, his family, and his old friend Biscuit appear at a Dead show in Seattle, May 1995, while a body waits in the marshy backwoods of Willapa. Music has always played a central role in McKinney’s writing, and this mystery is no exception: the concert featured is a real one, and the set list seems genuine. (Listen for yourself at archive.org). Pruitt’s Deadhead identity brings humor and interesting trivia, but there is emotional warmth behind it – Jerry Garcia’s death shakes the latter half of the book out of the routines of mystery fiction and into a surprising chapter on mourning and change. Speaking of change, it’s almost unnerving how much a novel set in 1995 reads like historical fiction. Critical evidence is stored on a stack of floppy discs, a suspect’s car is tailed using an RF transmitter, and meth is the new drug in town. These distinctive touches are fresh enough to keep the reader engaged until the large, tangled web of relationships that drive the plot can take hold and feel like family.
Pruitt makes for an appealing central character, and the novel’s small-town setting is solid and well crafted. The procedural elements of the murder investigation are effective, and reflect serious research. Seasoned mystery readers should enjoy the novelty of a law enforcement team with budget problems – when was the last time you saw a protagonist worry about his deputies’ overtime? Recommended for fans of lighter mysteries – Joan Hess’ Arly Hanks, Patrick McManus’ Bo Tully, and James Doss’ Charlie Moon series are natural read-alikes for their mix of rural settings, police work, and mild humor.