When Death Draws Near (Gwen Marcey #3), by Carrie Stuart Parks

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Carrie Stuart Parks, and Thomas Nelson for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with this review.

In her latest forensic thriller, Parks brings Gwen Marcey back for another adventure, well out of her comfort zone. After accepting a brief job in rural Kentucky, Marcey arrives to help the Pike County sheriff with a serial rapist. Marcey interviews the latest victim in hopes of getting enough to provide a forensic sketch, before they are able to secure enough information, the victim goes missing, as have the other rape victims. Sheriff Clayton Reed has another project on which he could use Marcey’s assistance and shuttles her over to visit a state senator, whose lavish home is both daunting and alluring. Marcey is asked to go undercover to identify key members of a serpent charming church, a local branch-off of the Pentecostals. A number of its members have turned up dead from snakebites, poison ingestion, and other incidents, all of which points to danger within the sect. Leery of how she will be able to keep her task away from the others, Marcey waffles, but is soon convinced that her artistic skills might be more useful than anything else that’s been tried. Marcey receives two pieces of poignant news before she makes her final decision: her daughter is being sent to stay with her for a time, and her cancer has returned. Working to digest both pieces, Marcey embarks on her adventure with daughter, Aynslee, alongside her. Aynslee exhibits typical teenage behaviour but turns out to be more interested in the religious experience than could have been imagined. Beginning with a service, Marcey and Aynslee are invited to a full revival, where serpents will appear and others acts of God presented. While Marcey does her best to focus on the ringleaders, she is intercepted by some who find her outsider nature to be more concerning. With a rapist still on the loose and a killer within the religious group, Marcey remains on guard and must find answers before she is revealed to be a skeptic. However, danger seems to find Marcey easily and she is pulled in deeper than she could have expected! which may leave her in dire straits before the cancer can ravage her body. A wonderfully compelling novel by Parks that tackles not only the forensics, but also struggles with religion, spirituality, and personal defeat. A must read by any reader whose interest strays into the forensics sciences.

Parks uses her Gwen Marcey character to emulate her own life experience, which shows in her writing. Detailed description of forensic artists and their techniques pepper the narrative as well as enrich the protagonist as she seeks to educate and undertake all tasks. This is an oft-forgotten aspect of forensics, so highlighting it appears to serve multiple purposes. Parks also ventures into the always-delicate area of religious groups for the second time, this time a Pentecostal sect whose use of serpents mirrors verses in the New Testament. Parks is able to present the idea as grounded in faith, even if Gwen Marcey’s character is skeptical of the whole thing, without being demeaning or dismissive. This is a strong theme throughout, as the reader explores the nuances of religious belief and is faced with some acts that may seem dangerous or outright silly. Parks turns inward on the Gwen Marcey struggle with the news that cancer is back and how she will handle her inevitable death. Marcey has been through this before, but its reemergence weighs heavily on her mind and loosely accepted soul. There are portions of the novel in which Marcey begins to have conversations with herself and others in her mind, which led me to wonder if these were less to rationalize events and more along the lines of delusions tied to the disease. How Parks is able to pull in so many characters who have touched Marcey without writing them into the story is quite smart, while also pushing the envelop with Marcey’s sanity and her grounded nature. The story plays out well and the characters support all needed aspects, allowing the reader to feel tied to everything, which not getting too bogged down in any single aspect. Parks shows her superior writing abilities in this regard and should be complimented for this approach. Truly a novel that has been well-crafted and succeeds in luring the reader in from the opening pages.

Kudos, Madam Parks for another stellar piece of writing. I cannot wait to see if Gwen Marcey returns for another adventure, should her health be up to it.