Temporary sheriff Claire Watkins tries to find the person behind the murder of a local woman whose unconscious body was burned during a festival bonfire. Claire Watkins has been happy in her role as police deputy in the small town of Fort St. Antoine, Wis. Her daughter Meg is preparing to leave for college and she is happy in both her marriage and her career. But when the sheriff has a heart attack, he appoints Claire as his replacement and her first task is solving the murder of a local woman. Her body was discovered hidden in the remains of a Viking boat that a local group has built and then set afire on the beach as part of a class project. Forensics shows that the woman was probably still alive when she was burned, although she was likely unconscious.
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Claire is also having some problems with her daughter. Meg met 26-year-old Andrew Stickler, a vet who served in Afghanistan and who is the newest rookie on the police department. Claire is concerned about the age difference between the two and Andrew's much wider life experiences. But as 18-year-old women are wont to do, Meg ignores her mother's wishes and continues to secretly see Andrew. But her mom becomes more concerned after her investigation uncovers the identity of the dead woman and she happens to be a local woman who had dated Andrew in college. She told friends that she wanted to reunite with Andrew, even though she was engaged to another man. Andrew denies that there was anything going on before the woman's death. But when it turns out that he met her for drinks one night and then drove her home, Claire becomes even more suspicious.
Aside from the murder investigation, Andrew is also having problems with his old war buddy, Doug Nelson. Nelson contacts Andrew and says that they need to meet. His behavior is erratic and it isn't until later that he realizes Doug had recently visited the town and spent some time talking to the dead woman. Doug has recently been thrown out of his parent's home and has become obsessed with a fallen comrade that was best friends with both men. He died in Afghanistan and although Andrew doesn't know it, he believes that Andrew contributed to his death. On his way to Fort St. Antoine he stops at his grandmother's house, where he kills her after learning she is suffering from terminal cancer.
Doug then calls Andrew and wants to meet. Andrew picks a local bar for the meeting, but Meg spots him and ends up at the table with Andrew and Doug. Doug is ranting and pulls a gun, saying that Andrew needs to die. The bartender spots the gun and calls police and Claire happens to be just a couple of blocks away. She arrives and shoots Doug after Meg is able to get away from table. Doug later tells Claire that he had followed the murdered woman home and confronted her about Andrew. He hit her and left after she fell and hit her head. He admits that he might have killed her, but denies placing her body in the firepit. But the woman's fiancee finally confesses to that move, claiming that he came home, found her dead and was worried police would suspect him. So he placed her body in a spot to be burned, not knowing she was still likely alive.
The case is solved and Claire learns that the sheriff isn't coming back and he's recommended her to be his permanent replacement. Meg and Andrew are still attracted to each other, but they realize that they are too different points in their life. After a final kiss, they go their separate ways.
Best part of story, including ending:
The murder case seemed simple and in the end there wasn't much mystery to it. But what made the mystery worth reading was the effect that the death had on the other characters and how it opened up all sorts of other personal stories that were just as interesting as the murder.
Best scene in story:
My favorite scene was towards the end of the book, when Meg and Andrew realize that they might be a good fit for each other, but not at this point in their lives. It's a very believable scene and written in a way that is bittersweet but not manipulative.
Opinion about the main character:
This is the latest in a series of Claire Watkins mystery novels and she is a really engaging and compelling character. Her small town life is sometimes simple, but it's not written in some sort of formulaic small-town way. She's a good cop, but she doesn't pretend to know everything and that is a welcome change from many other books.