New Jersey has hosted a run of excellent (and humorous) crime thrillers in the past year. The latest example is Ken Harris’s high-octane thriller, in which investigator Steve Rockfish tackles a series of 1943 crimes in rural southern New Jersey. The healthy young men were going to war, and they left behind quite a few pregnant girlfriends. Unfortunately, many families considered pregnant unmarried daughters an embarrassment, sent them away, kept them out of sight, or cut them off completely. If they and their babies disappeared, that may have seemed like the best outcome. One local police officer, Edward McGee, persisted in investigating these disappearances. When he disappeared too, the questions stopped.
This chilling history lesson is the prologue of The Pine Barrens Stratagem. From that point, the story fast-forwards to 2020. An unlikely crusader for justice—a Los Angeles-based true crime podcaster named Angel Davenport—hears tantalizing threads of this story and decides it could be his ticket to a lucrative, high-profile Netflix television series.
Temperamentally allergic to hard work, not to mention being located 2700 miles from the scene of action and in pandemic lockdown, Davenport hires Baltimore’s Steve Rockfish to pursue the case. It could be murder, it could be child trafficking, it could be both. At least Davenport’s dramatic instincts are correct: it has all the makings of a compelling story.
Rockfish has something of a drinking problem—a trait he shares with the man who hired him—but it turns out he’s a good investigator, and it’s entertaining to see him smoothly work the system, talking his way into places to conduct interviews and making allies as well as enemies as his investigation proceeds. He has a wicked sense of humor (there’s a coarseness in the early part of the book that mostly disappears as the story goes along) and locks onto the politics of the people he meets, using their prejudices against them. They never realize what he’s doing, but I was laughing.
He teams up with Jawnie McGee, great-granddaughter of the long-ago missing and presumed dead policeman, who turns out to be an excellent partner. Naturally, it’s not all smooth sailing for this pair. Lots of people have a stake in keeping the lid on those long ago events—the local cops, the Mafia, the Catholic Church. Will Steve and Jawnie be able to evade them all?
Harris is a retiree from more than three decades as a cybersecurity executive with the FB, and his affection for his home state of New Jersey shines through. An epilogue reveals this is the first of a series. A sequel is expected in July.