Stillriver by Andrew Rosenheim

Bridges over troubled waters
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Homecoming is a well-explored theme in American fiction, and Andrew Rosenheim feels no compunction in waving this particular flag in his novel. Part love story, part thriller, Stillriver opens with a cold-blooded murder. Henry Wolf, a retired history teacher with a passion for native American history, is found bludgeoned to death in his bed. His son, Michael, a London-based engineer, returns to small-town Michigan. Shocked by his father's inexplicable killing, he settles down to some serious reassessment, not only of his father's life, but of his own.

Brooding on his boyhood and adolescence - he has never got over his high-school sweetheart - Michael is torn between running away from his past and seeking it out. In the end, his past catches up with him, and his long-lost love, Cassie Gilbert, comes knocking at his door. Romance usually plays second fiddle to forensics in such books, but Rosenheim's narrative places Michael's love life centre-stage.

Michael and Cassie's early courtship unfurls with all the peachy sentiment of a Larry McMurtry epic. Teenage Cassie has eyes the colour of cornflowers; Michael radiates John Boy-esque integrity. She likes kissing, he wants more. Michael leaves for college and travel overseas. Cassie stays behind to care for her invalid father.

The couple keep in touch, but after marriage to others (and abortive motel trysts) never quite make it past third base. Michael's return to Stillriver promises an explosive denouement - although, given Midwest scruples, erotic disappointment is on the cards.

While Cassie and Michael continue to play emotional tag, Rosenheim wraps up the whodunnit element of the novel with greater finesse. Prime suspects include Gary, Michael's flaky younger brother, and middle-aged twins Ethel and Daisy - a gothic twosome whose gnomic utterances (and fully-fledged beards) mark them out as the town's creepiest residents. The murder inquiry uncovers a trail of neo-Nazi nastiness and some neatly plotted revelations. There's also a nice sub-plot involving a camp-out of redneck renegades, more interested in each other than homecoming queens.

Rosenheim's novel concludes in a blaze of metaphors and heroic last stands. Suffice it to say that bad weather, and a knife-wielding ex, choose to make their appearance on the same night. A gutsy saga about last-minute redemption, home runs and building bridges, Stillriver spans the troubled waters between Harlan Coben and Anita Shreve.