At first glance, I had the impression that Bitter Roots by C. J. Carmichael was a Western fiction novel. It is not. This is a story of a very small sheriff’s department in a very small town in a very small county where a murder has occurred. The victim was a temporary worker at the local Christmas Tree Farm, Riley Concurran, who had only been in town a little over a month. It was not a season for tourists. There were no mysterious strangers who had been seen by residents in a town where every stranger was scrutinized closely, and where every event was the subject of gossip at either the cafes or the Dew Drop Inn. All this meant that the killer was a local resident. Unmasking that person was the concern of the understaffed Sheriff’s Department.
The Sheriff’s Department of Lost Trail, Montana was both adequate to perform law enforcement duties required by the community and understaffed due to personnel peculiarities. Sheriff Ford was a small-town sheriff with an eye on elections. He would want to make sure the killer could not be a citizen (voter) of Lost Trail. Therefore, the search would be for someone in Riley’s background who would profit from the death, had committed the murder in or around Lost Trail, and who had fled. Deputy Butterfield, sixty years old, had a sense for when Sheriff Ford would be present and always showed up at work a few minutes before the boss. He would then find a patrol area that assured he would not be seen around the station during his shift. Deputy Black, a new female deputy, had yet to form work habits and did not have enough background knowledge yet to decide anything. Zak Waller, our main protagonist and hero, was the office dispatcher and did not want to be anything else. He had the ability and education to be a deputy sheriff but was an under-the-radar kind of guy who did not want to be the lead in anything. He had no investigative authority or power of arrest. But he was curious, much more so than the Sheriff or his deputies.
Residents of Local Trail who had any connection with the Raven Christmas Tree Farm, and that was almost everyone, would have their backgrounds looked at closely in a search for anyone who was a threat to or who had been threatened by Riley. Justin Pitman, son of coroner Doc Pitman, knew a lot of the darker secrets of the town, whether through lawyer confidentiality requirements or through his father who worked under doctor-patient confidentiality requirements. Justin recalled how murder victim Riley had visited his office with a vague legal question about culpability for criminal acts. She had not been sufficiently clear with her questioning and the lawyer-client relationship had not been formed. But he now wondered about the cryptic conversation they had. Justin had not pursued it as he was preoccupied with his new wife and newly adopted son. Willow had grown up in Lost Trail, had left it with Justin’s friend and Willow’s lover Paul. She had recently returned with Paul’s baby and a remembrance of a relationship with Justin. In his efforts to help her, Justin contributed to one of the darker Lost Trail stories by marrying Willow and adopting her baby. But Willow was not happy in Lost Trail and that occupied a lot of Justin’s thought.
Justin and Willow’s situation will be repeated many times in Lost Trail with only a change of names. In the small town, there were financial haves and have-nots. There were also have-nots who were residential originals, founders of the town, powerful people. This novel is very good in its character development of the individuals who make up a small town. There is the annoying retired high school teacher who pesters the Sheriff’s Department when high school students pester her with minor vandalism acts against property. She doesn’t know them except by name because she had taught their parents. There are the two sisters who run the Raven Tree Christmas farm, a local economic powerhouse, and employer of Riley Concurran. There was the new farm manager who had fortuitously arrived six months earlier to replace a manager of over twenty years who had abruptly resigned. He lived on the farm in a guest house that the returning Tiffany Masterson wanted to occupy. She had returned to Lost Trails after a meltdown in a high-stress job. She felt she could come home and help mother Rosemary and Aunt Marsha run the family farm.
Lots of well-developed characters and scenes make this a five-star read. There is more than one mystery surrounding the murder mystery. Most questions will be answered but I found one mystery only hinted at that was not developed at all. The dialogue surrounding it could have been left out of the novel and no one would have noticed. Maybe it is a topic for another novel in the series. This is subtitled “A Bitter Root Mystery so I look forward to other books in the series.
I grew up in a town the size of Lost Trails. The town had dark secrets. I was also a Sheriff’s Deputy. This novel felt like a visit home.