"IN THE LONELY BACKWATER" by Valerie Nieman (Regal House Publishing, 272 pages, $19).
Maggie Warshauer, the 17-year-old main character in Valerie Nieman's intriguing new mystery, "In the Lonely Backwater," may go down in literary history as one of the most memorable unreliable narrators since Rachel Watson in Paula Hawkins' "The Girl on the Train."
From the outset, it's clear that Maggie knows more than she's saying about her cousin Charisse Swicegood's disappearance and murder in their tiny North Carolina fishing village. But even as Maggie divulges new information with each subsequent chapter, there's the lingering question of whether she's still holding something back.
"Me, I'm a creature like a bear or raccoon, I can live lots of ways," Maggie muses at one point. "Daughter of Andrew, cleaner of boats roamer of woods, scientist, stalker of plants and animals, teller of tales."
On the surface, she paints herself as a competent, responsible and complex individual, which she is. But it's the lattermost description of herself that is particularly poignant. How much of what she says is fact, and how much is part of her own fantasies? Her own tall tales?
In the beginning, Maggie is more than upfront when it comes to her own insecurities, creating immediate sympathy from readers and a sense of trust.
"Pretty wasn't a word people would use for me. Sturdy, maybe. Strong. Active. Healthy. Not pretty," Maggie tells us. "I once heard one of my mother's friends say that I must have hid behind the door when they were passing out good looks."
By comparison, Maggie describes Charisse as having "won the genetic lottery." She's tall, smart, athletic, a talented singer with a rich family. And she brought a college-aged boyfriend to the prom, which Maggie chose not to attend.
"I spent more time alone, which was the only way I felt whole," Maggie tells us.
With an alcoholic father and an AWOL mother, even Maggie's family life offers no solace for her.
It is this self-defeating view of herself and lack of confidence that lead Maggie to hang out with a pair of other high school outcasts, Nathaniel and Hulky. But more importantly, it prompts Maggie into creating a fictional friendship with a mysterious island-dwelling man, Fletcher, whom she gleefully boasts about on her Facebook page. After Charisse accuses her of making him up, the pair wind up in a feud that has the whole school talking.
Maggie maintains that Fletcher's real, in some aspect. "He really exists, out there somewhere, someone that I am connected with on another plane and who visits my dreams. So, mysteries aren't fiction at all."
Her selfish persistence and jealousy blind Maggie to Charisse's own vulnerabilities. After her date attempts to rape her, Charisse seeks out Maggie for comfort. We learn that Charisse is in fact a virgin and believes the more sexually mature Maggie can help her. But Maggie refuses to listen and leaves Charisse alone, a choice she immediately regrets.
"Now that I was safe in my own bed, I felt some guilt about leaving her helpless as a wet kitten. I shook off and on with a chill, first from the cold, and then with a feeling that I had not done anything, but what I hadn't done was something very wrong."
A week later, Charisse is found dead and Maggie is revealed to be one of the last people to see her, drawing the interest of the detective working the case and fueling the rumor mill about town with its own suppositions.
Nieman, whose previous book "To the Bones" was a 2020 Killer Nashville Silver Falchion finalist, expertly crafts Maggie's story in slow-drip fashion, spilling new information along the way. Maggie's doubts about herself highlight not only her own insecurities, but also questions among readers as to whether she can be trusted to tell the truth.
The result is a heartfelt, compassionate and expertly told coming-of-age story steeped in mystery and suspense.
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