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Russell Johnson
The Mountain Mystic
Since succeeding her dearly departed husband, Bill, to become Jasper County’s first female sheriff, Mary Beth Cain has closed more cases than any three of her male predecessors combined. But nobody bats a thousand in the cop game. Nobody. And, ovaries aside, Mary Beth knows she’s no different. There’d been a handful of unsolveds during her tenure, victims and families denied their justice, and each and every one of them gnaws at her soul. She thinks about them late at night as she sips her whiskey, counting regrets like sheep. But the case that haunts Mary Beth most is one that went cold before she was even on the force: the long-ago disappearance of a family friend, named Maria Ruiz. So when a country psychic’s vision leads to the discovery of Maria’s body, Mary Beth isn’t willing to chalk it up as genuine clairvoyance and goes all in on an investigation that cuts close to home.
Johnson’s second West Virginia-set Mountaineer Mystery (after Moonshine Messiah) features Jasper County’s first female sheriff Mary Beth Cain, reinvestigating a cold case at the insistence of her son Sam, who has been inspired by a mystic. Maria Ruiz—granddaughter to Guadalupe, former housekeeper to the Cain family—disappeared without a trace several years ago. Mary Beth discovers her remains thanks to clues provided by the mystic and help from her deputy, Izzy Baker. She suspects the involvement of Maria’s ex-boyfriend Pedro Kowalski, now an orthopedist, but forensic analysis reveals a strand of hair on Maria’s remains, which leads Mary Beth to convicted criminal Octavio Silva, who reveals the involvement of Raul, Pedro’s brother, a former drug peddler. But Raul, after ratting on his cartel, has now fled to Mexico.

Narrated in breezy, conversational language with much local color, the novel is fast-paced, with action that never lets up, bringing life to a milieu of Waffle Houses, gravel roads, ramshackle wooden bridges, and bars specializing in bikini bull riding. Though on the outside Mary Beth is a hardened law enforcer, her own vulnerabilities regarding her son Sam, her confused loyalties and feelings of guilt regarding her late husband and some family members make her human and fallible, while her dialogue—calling a prosecutor “Boss Hogg,” for example—is charmingly expressive of her region. Izzy is a good sidekick to Mary Beth, restraining her when required and backing her up when the situation demands. Apart from the two, Princess, Izzy’s wife, and Sam, prove especially engaging, the kind of characters who reward readers over series installments.

Johnson’s story will test Mary Beth, with some personal complications at times seeming to keep her from seeing the truth of key matters—in fact, seasoned mystery readers might be able to guess at some secrets she misses long before the reveal. Still, this thriller is a brisk, tense read, pulsing with character, and it will hold reader interest till the last page.

Takeaway: A West Virginia county’s first female sheriff takes on an engaging cold case.

Comparable Titles: Julie Ann Lindsey’s Apple Cider Slaying, Rita Herron’s The Silent Dolls.

Production grades
Cover: B+
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: B
Marketing copy: A

Book Anon

APRIL 29, 2024 BY JEFF

#BookReview: The Mountain Mystic by Russell W. Johnson

Solid Second Book In Series. This is one of those tales where both the author and the reader are going on an adventure- ok, the first book was *awesome*, but I had all the time in the world to write the thing and now I need to produce a sequel in a timely manner since my name isn’t GRR Martin… so what do I do?

Johnson’s answer here is a thrilling ride that perhaps doesn’t have the same level of social commentary from the first book – though to be clear, there is still *some* here – yet manages to keep up with the action and even introduces some wrinkles not seen in the first book, going in a direction not often seen, but which makes perfect sense within this world.

And then… just when you think everything is all said and done… Thanos appears. No, not really. But there *is* that stinger scene at the end that reveals the storm clouds on the horizon… storm clouds that portend one *intense* battle coming up. Will we see that battle in Book 3, or will we simply edge closer to the storm? Yet again, I for one can’t wait to find out.

Very much recommended.

Kirkus Reviews

Despite a West Virginia police chief’s misgivings, a fortune teller’s tips turn a cold case hot in Johnson’s second Mountaineer mystery.

Jasper County Sheriff Mary Beth Cain succeeds in closing more cases than her three male predecessors combined. One of those men was her late husband, “strong, silent, dutiful” Bill Cain, killed during a drug bust when he was only 28. Before his death, he was working on the still-unsolved case of missing 19-year-old Maria Ruiz, the granddaughter of the Cains’ housekeeper, Guadalupe. Now Mary Beth’s college-age son, Sam, wants her to reopen the more than 10-year-old case based on new “evidence” learned from a fortune teller he visited with Guadalupe. It turns out that the mystic’s clues do pan out, but piecing the case together requires Mary Beth to connect with her first love, Washington, D.C. lawyer Patrick Connelly; her late husband’s sketchy best friend who always “hated her guts,” Randy Law; jailed cartel hitman Octavio Condor Silva; and her own mother, Mamie, who runs “a hillbilly crime syndicate.” Characters are rough around the edges, living in a struggling county that’s suffering from the ills of drug trafficking. Plucky Mary Beth is dedicated to policing and helping Jasper’s population, yet it’s still a leap to see why “ruggedly handsome” Bill or “big-time” attorney Patrick would be so besotted with the overbearing sheriff with a penchant for whiskey, cigarettes, and foul language. Her bossiness as a parent—she only allows adult Sam to drink decaf—results in him staying with Guadalupe on a college break and not Mary Beth, which surprises and annoys her. The revelations and shocks are plentiful, though, making for a fast-paced book. There’s appealing humor, as well, as when Dr. Bashid Patel, a chain-smoking coroner, does a profane comic routine while reviewing a corpse for Mary Beth.

It’s in the cards: Many mystery fans will enjoy this twisty page-turner.