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20131122__montana-by-gwen-florio~p1_200Reviewed by Cal Cleary

Journalist Lola Wicks has been working in the Middle East for so long now, she’s more at home there than she is at the Baltimore newspaper that employs her. But when the paper cancels all its overseas coverage and brings her home, she finds herself having a tough time fitting back in with an America that’s seemingly left her behind. She plans to go back to Kabul and work for herself as soon as possible, but first she has to take a trip to Montana where former coworker and best friend Mary Alice has semi-retired. She arrives to find Mary Alice dead, her cabin ransacked, and a local sheriff who lacks the experience or resources to handle a murder. Trapped in Montana until the case resolves, Lola decides to pit her formidable know-how against a tight-knit small town that seems to be harboring its fair share of secrets.

Montana is the debut novel of Gwen Florio, retired journalist and Montana transplant. Florio has a clear understanding of the material, with a lot of detail and journalistic anecdotes filling out what is otherwise a fairly slight story. But while Florio understands the surface material well enough to give the world a confident, lived-in feel, I’m less certain about Florio’s grasp on the mechanics of crafting a mystery.

She’s got a rock-solid premise, but (aside from a bang-up prologue) the set-up is also the weakest part of the book, spending far too much time on Lola trying to leave while the universe seemingly throws every possible bit of information she needs to solve the case right at her feet. Mary Alice’s tiny Montana town is only mildly fleshed-out thanks to the somewhat limited page-count, but its residents are by and large fairly memorable. There are a lot of small setting details, too, that make Montana a fun read. But the mystery at the book’s core is unfortunately a non-starter – it quickly becomes less a ‘whodunnit’ and more a ‘why dunnit’ with a goofy, pulpy conclusion that doesn’t sit too well with a lot of what came before.

Too straight-forward to be an effective mystery and too slack to be an effective thriller, Montana succeeds as much as it does on the strength of its characters. It’s not a mistake that the first half of the book is the weakest; while Lola is an interesting protagonist, she needs people to bounce off for the book to come alive. Florio may have a hard time with the structure of the book, but she did a genuinely good job when it came to bringing together a diverse, fascinating cast of characters. There are a lot of strong moments in Montana, but it stumbles too often to build up much momentum off them. With a little more room to breathe and build its world, this could have been an excellent mystery; as is, it’s passable but not particularly exciting.

Rating: ★★½☆☆ 

Cal Cleary is a librarian, critic and writer in rural Ohio. You can find more of his work at read/RANT and Comics Crux.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Permanent Press. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.