As its very name suggests, the community of Sanctuary in Waldo County, Maine, is the kind of place where people go to settle down and raise families. It is a place that has a certain ease-of-life feel, good schools and services, and friendly neighbors who do good deeds for each other. Jack McMorrow, the protagonist of Gerry Boyle’s McMorrow mystery series, his wife and their young daughter have a nice life there. When “Random Act” opens, Boyle is helping two longtime best friends, Clair Varney and Louis Longfellow, clear trees from an elderly neighbor’s land for firewood to help her pay for her husband’s nursing home care.

Cover courtesy of Islandport Press

It’s a good life – until it isn’t.

The sense of sanctuary is breached in the early chapters of “Random Act,” the 12th in the series. McMorrow goes to a local big box store to get a new toilet and ends up watching Lindy Hines, a middle-aged woman who has just moved to town, bleed out in the Christmas wreath aisle with a crazed madman standing over with an ax shouting she’s no longer a danger. The sheer randomness of the murder rips deeply into McMorrow. His distress is compounded by haunting “what ifs” – what if he had paused to chat with the woman in the parking lot when she had sought to be friendly, would she yet be alive?

Another breach of tranquility comes with the unexpected arrival of an old high school friend of Longfellow’s. The first time she encounters McMorrow and Varney, she orders them to the ground waving a pistol in their faces. She speaks with a slight Eastern European accent. Longfellow appears and calms everyone, telling his buddies that Marta Kovac is hiding out in Maine hoping to elude the thugs who tortured and killed her boyfriend on a private island.

“She’s a survivor,” he assures them. She was orphaned when her parents were forced off the road in the Ukraine. Pinned for three days in the car, little Marta threw lit matches out the window and started a fire until others noticed and rescued her. She subsequently came to the United States to live with an uncle, which is when Longfellow befriended her.

At this point, “Random Act” starts tracking two independent plot lines. McMorrow, a freelance reporter who files dispatches from Maine, can’t shield himself from guilt set off by the random killing. And from the start, he doesn’t trust Kovac. When he finds $2 million in hundred dollar bills in the trunk of her Audi, he becomes convinced she is somehow playing Longfellow.

Longfellow and Varney are no strangers to random violence. Both are former marines who’ve served in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither needs to be schooled in the darkness that may be in people’s hearts. Despite his friends’ backgrounds and experience, McMorrow feels compelled to weigh in, trying to get Longfellow to see the danger Kovac has put him, has put all of them in.

Her presence marks the beginning of a rift among the friends. Marta and McMorrow clash, but she’s undaunted by his dislike of her. “’I like you, Jack,’” she tells him at one point, “‘so I’m going to tell you this. This is my big chance, to start my own life. So I get that you don’t like me. Whatever. But don’t get in my way. I guarantee it wouldn’t end well.’”

McMorrow is also undaunted. He doggedly digs for the story that will explain the seeming randomness of the evil he witnessed in the wreath aisle. In time, he learns that Hines had been planning to start work at the local shelter where her assailant, a local street person known as Teak, often went to get his meds for schizoaffective disorder. Additionally, Teak’s lab results show that no meds were in his system when he was arrested – but there was methamphetamine. Then, the grown son of the ax-murder victim gets murdered, too – while Teak is sitting in jail. Suddenly, things don’t appear so random.

The story lines in “Random Act” are complex, each offering several possible scenarios that get teased out like poker hands. Boyle advances the plots concurrently, though the transitions between them are not always smooth. McMorrow ponders the nature of randomness throughout the book. He comes to see that interpretations vary, depending on where you are standing.

Boyle, who lives and writes in Winslow, does so many things well in his McMorrow series – from story and plotting to writing compelling characters. Consider McMorrow and his buddies Varney and Longfellow. At first you think they’re just nice guys, doing favors for each other and their neighbors, trying to live quiet lives. But as “Random Act” unfolds, Boyle reveals their characters are considerably more complex: They’re sometimes confrontational with one another, drawing sharp boundaries and issuing threats. When Longfellow throws in his allegiance with Kovac, the bond between McMorrow and Longfellow is rent. It doesn’t end well for anyone.

Boyle leaves some threads of the story dangling, inviting speculation he’s planning on picking them up again. Certainly, the unexpected rift between characters who are normally companionable and easygoing marks a significant pivot. It will make avid fans of McMorrow eager to know what comes next.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction in 2014 by “Shelf Unbound.” His novel was also a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize. Smith can be reached through his website: www.frankosmithstories.com.


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