MANCHESTER -- It's not a "whodunit." But it reads like one.
Sara J. Henry, the author of "A Cold and Lonely Place," has written a story that's a sequel to her first novel, "Learning to Swim," which won three major literary awards and established her as an emerging writer worth watching -- and reading. While her newest novel revolves around the time-honored formula of a death under mysterious and unexplained circumstances, the story doesn't track along the standard format for mystery/suspense fiction, she said.
"It's more character-driven," she said during a recent interview about ‘A Cold and Lonely Place.' "It's all about the people. The crime, or the event, is a stage on which you set the characters.. What's important are the characters and their reactions to things."
We quickly meet the characters that drive "A Cold and Lonely Place."
The main protagonist and narrator is Troy Chance, a freelance writer and former sports editor of the local newspaper that covers the Adirondack region around Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, N.Y., where the story is set. As she is shooting photographs of the annual Winter Carnival being set up, a body is discovered under the ice. It turns out to be that of Tobin Winslow, the boyfriend of one of her roommates, and something of a well-off, trustfund baby drifter. But a likable enough, nice guy as well, goes the local consensus.
Death by accident or death by foul play? Troy Chance is directed by the no-nonsense editor of the paper to bang out the immediate news story of the death -- which goes mysteriously awry at the hands of a second, less experienced reporter, and triggers a social media-driven frisson of speculation. But then she gets to sink her teeth into a long form feature story about Winslow and his life leading up to his untimely death. Through that mechanism, she brings to light information about his unusual and complicated background, which includes the mysterious death of an older brother -- also by drowning -- years ago.
Other characters also move the narrative along. There's Jessamyn Field, Tobin Winslow's girlfriend, who turns out to have a colorful past of her own. Then we meet Jessica Winslow, Tobin's sister, who arrives in the remote patch of the Adirondacks on her own search about her brother: How he died, who were his last group of friends, and what was his life like in his final months. Through her emerge, in a flickering sort of way, the parents, now burdened with the death of a second son under, if not exact, then chillingly similar circumstances. But they too turn out to be hiding skeletons in closets and are not all they initially seem.
Who was Tobin and how did he end up under the ice? In the course of unraveling this mystery, intrepid reporter Troy Chance comes to find out much that is unexpected about him. The tale winds up with an surprising twist, but things get sorted out in the end, even if that involves a bit of heartache on Chance's part over a relationship that is sacrificed to the gods of writing.
Henry's first novel, "Learning to Swim" -- the first in a series of at least six books she has planned to write using Troy Chance as the central narrator -- won the 2012 Anthony Award, the 2012 Agatha Award for best first novel and the 2012 Mary Higgins Clark Award. She drew on some of her own experiences in writing "A Cold and Lonely Place," she said.
She can write with authenticity since she herself was a sports editor and freelance writer for the Saranac Lake-based Adirondack Daily Enterprise during the mid-1980s and then freelanced for several magazines before winding up as a editor at the Pennsylvania-based Rodale Press. Originally from Oak Ridge, Tenn., she now makes her home in nearby Newfane.
Henry will be discussing her new book at the Northshire Bookstore on Friday, Feb. 15, starting at 7 p.m. For more information, call the bookstore at 802-362-2200, or visit northshire .com.