2 out of 4 stars
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Janet and Lynn West have just turned 13. They are two ordinary girls living in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The rambunctious twins have a happy childhood until an ill-fated Saturday in June 2001. When their mother returns to pick them up after a day at the beach, they are nowhere to be seen. Suspecting foul play, the desperate parents notify the authorities. Despite the search teams and an extensive investigation, all efforts are in vain. What is worse, within a span of only ten years two more girls go missing from locations along the same road, US74A. In 2011, Special Agent Sean Tzu, an Abduction and Hostage Specialist, is assigned the case of the mysterious disappearances. As a father of a 13-year-old daughter called Kiera, Agent Tzu understands the parents’ despair and is determined to find out the truth.
Judgment At Hickory Nut Gorge by Dan Hedgepath is book one in the Sean Tzu mystery series. It might appeal to readers of hard-boiled thrillers full of terror, brutality, and murder. In fact, this is the only reason I am giving this novel 2 out of 4 stars instead of the lowest rating. Otherwise, the book did not come up to my initial expectations. On the contrary, it was rather disappointing in terms of both the plot and character development.
I have always been an avid reader of murder mysteries, so I thought the investigation of the girls’ disappearances would be just up my alley. Unfortunately, the book did not focus on the investigation proper. The story starts somehow promising with the description of the picturesque mountain resort area of Hickory Nut Gorge and the bizarre disappearance of the West twins. However, from that moment onwards, the plot development becomes disjointed and highly implausible. In a surreal quest for one sensational event after another, the author forgets about realism and credibility. From physical aggression and sexual abuse to brutal murder, arson, tragic car accidents, and even a plane hijacking, nothing escapes the author’s craving for more and more shocking scenes.
The book has only 240 pages in the PDF version. Regardless, I had to make extra efforts to remain focused throughout the ten chapters. Some of the scenes of child molestation were very hard to read, while some others, like Sarah’s motorbike accident or James Nesbitt’s death, are still haunting me with their lurid and macabre details. The main narrative thread is often inadequately interrupted by divergent threads that would be better removed. The fact that the perspective changes from a third-person focus on Judge Roy Norwood to Agent Tzu’s first-person point of view adds even more confusion in the readers’ minds.
The characters did not impress me much either. Both the investigator and the sexual predator have moments when their actions come out of the blue and do not fit into the general framework of the storyline. The only characters I could possibly relate to and pity were the poor young victims and their families.
All things considered, I would have given this novel only 1 star. I settled down for 2 stars thinking that there could still be readers out there who do not shy away from violent scenes or offensive language. After all, the book has a backbone narrative structure and some characters that stand out from the crowd. A good editor would probably make wonders about both the content and editing of this novel. There are numerous punctuation and grammar mistakes that could be eliminated with a solid round of proofreading and editing. A skilled editor could also help the author get rid of the unrealistic scenes and make the protagonists more believable. As it is, the book was far from what I am looking for in an exciting murder mystery.
Judgment At Hickory Nut Gorge
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