How’s this for the setup of a mystery novel?
A retired school secretary who has a spotless reputation in a small Arkansas town is murdered, but the investigation shows she may have had a secret life.
As more clues are uncovered, the killing is tied to another violent death many years before.
Sons of the man executed for that crime are suspected in the new one, and a flamboyant preacher and an unscrupulous newspaperman inflame the town’s passions. The sins of the father seem destined to afflict the next generation.
Struggling to untangle it all is a respected sheriff, married to his high school sweetheart and father of a newborn son, still working through the demons he brought home from his service in World War II.
It may sound like a pastiche of plot points from thrillers you’ve watched on television or read several times before. And yet … in “Behind Every Door,” St. Louisan Cynthia A. Graham makes it intriguing enough to keep you looking forward to the next twists and turns.
This is the second novel she has written about Sheriff Hick Blackburn in Cherokee Crossing, Ark., whose father was once the principal of the town’s high school. Like most people in the town, father and son had great respect for Gladys Kestrel, the school’s longtime secretary and “the most harmless person in town,” so her murder is both a puzzle and a shock.
As her secret comes to light, and other long-held assumptions about people in the town turn out to be wrong as well, Blackburn is sucked into a morass of seemingly conflicting points of view that are difficult to reconcile.
Though the plot in “Behind Every Door” is compelling, Graham’s writing can be shopworn at times. Knees go weak and terror creeps up spines, and simple emotions are too often expressed simplistically.
For local readers, those shortcomings may be eased somewhat by the St. Louis color the novel includes. Graham, who graduated from UMSL, describes the city of more than 60 years ago as a place where someone tired of small-town Arkansas life can get a good job at an auto assembly plant and sink into anonymity.
And baseball fans will appreciate her mention of Stan Musial, Enos Slaughter and Red Schoendienst playing at Sportsman’s Park.
“Behind Every Door” may not win a spot on a list for the most literary thrillers of the year. But for anyone looking for an easy read, an intriguing plot and a strong sense of Arkansas atmosphere, it’s a good way to spend an afternoon or two.
Dale Singer is a reporter for St. Louis Public Radio.