The Grave Digger’s Boy, by R.R. Newman

Eight stars

Finding R. R. Newman’s debut novel cross my path was surely a sign. A mix of mystery and police procedural, I was pulled into the story from the beginning and held transfixed until the final page. At the age of eleven, Ben Hodge witnesses Esther Garrett being harassed on a transit bus. When Esther flees into the country woods, the harasser, one Aaron Greenslade, follows her. This is the last anyone saw of Esther, who is soon reported missing. While the police seek to find the teenage girl, Ben takes an inexplicable fascination in the news reports, amassing a scrapbook of articles. The authorities eventually change Greenslade with murder, though Esther’s body has yet to be found. Fast-forward twenty years and Ben is trying to make ends meet, reminded of the Esther Garrett case as news reports of a corrupt police detective make headlines. Many of the cases he led are now being re-examined, with the possibility of convictions built on false evidence being overturned. Ben’s obsession resurfaces and he soon encounters Esther’s sister, who remains vigilant that the truth is out there. As scraps of the case cross Ben’s path, he investigates for himself, even when counselled to leave well enough alone. Esther Garrett must be out there somewhere, even after all these years. Whether she is alive or dead is not quite clear, but Ben Hodge is sure he’s onto something, as vague as that might be. Newman builds a powerful story that culminates in a reveal many readers will likely enjoy. Recommended to those who love a good mystery, as well as readers who enjoy discovering new authors to add to their collection.

The power of Goodreads strikes again, as I found this piece while scanning the site a few weeks ago. The title alone pulled me in, but it was the story that sold me, even in the early chapters. Newman creates an interesting premise with young Ben Hodge as protagonist. A child of divorce, Ben is trying to process all of that as he stumbles upon the mystery of Esther Garrett’s disappearance. His obsession with the case forces him to mature quickly and he soon becomes captivated with what might have happened. The move to step ahead into Ben’s adult life is brilliant, as the case remained stuck in his craw over two decades. With little backstory outside what the reader learned and a slow character development moving ahead, the reader can connect to Ben at their own pace. Others offer great insight into the case and provide a few leads for the reader to consider. One can only wonder how Ben might have developed differently had some of the characters not crossed his path. The story was well developed, with a mix of narrative, press clippings, and evidence that Ben locates in his investigation. The reader can feel the momentum grow as the story gains speed and depth, with new leads developing as the chapters build on one another. A mix of short and long chapters keep the reader balanced and forces a commitment to learn what’s happening. With an ending that pulls everything together in a timely fashion, this is a debut well worth a look.

Kudos, Mr. Newman, for a fabulous venture into the genre. I cannot wait to see what else you have in store for fans.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: