HEAVEN’S A LIE
By Wallace Stroby
Mulholland Books (Little Brown)
Pub date: 06-April-2021
AMBER LOVE 05-MAR-2021 This review is a courtesy provided by NetGalley. To support this site and my other work, please consider being a monthly donor at Patreon.com/amberunmasked; you can also buy my books through Amazon (or ask your local retailer to order you copies). I’m also an Amazon Influencer so you can shop through my lists of recommended products.
When a young widow witnesses a fatal car accident outside a Jersey Shore motel, she’s suddenly thrust into a nightmare of gang violence, guns, and money that she can’t outrun.
Joette Harper’s life brings new meaning to the phrase “paycheck to paycheck.” Struggling to afford her mother’s sky-high medical bills and also keep the lights on in her trailer home, Joette needs a break.
So, when she spies a briefcase full of money amongst the wreckage of a fiery car accident, she knows she can’t just let it be. Inside is a bounty better than she could have dreamed-just shy of $300,000 in neatly stacked hundreds and fifties. Enough to pay off her debts, give her mother the care she deserves, and maybe even help out a few of her friends.
But, of course, the missing briefcase didn’t go unnoticed by its original owner, Travis Clay—a ruthless dealer who’ll stop at nothing to get back what’s his.
Joette is way out of her depth, but can’t seem to stop herself from participating in this cat-and-mouse chase. But can she beat Travis at his own game?
New Jersey novelist and journalist, Wallace Stroby, is perhaps most well-known for his Crissa Stone series which is presently four books and a short story; plus there are an additional four books to his name. In HEAVEN’S A LIE, Stroby introduces readers to a new female protagonist.
Joette Harper is a down to earth woman making ends meet at the Jersey Shore area working in a crappy motel. She keeps her social circle small: a dying mother in hospice; a cop who is sweet on her; a friendly tennant of the motel and her daughter; and a best friend from an old job where she was downsized.
Stroby keeps his prose lean with the nostalgic meter of gumshoe noir. The first sentence immediately launches Joette and the readers: she’s bored at work, watching a car out on the highway take a curve way too fast. She predicts the crash, but not the cause.
The conundrum for Joette is one, I think, most of us that are not financially well off think about. What if…
- Money fell from the sky.
- I win the lottery — or —
- A car crashes and there’s a big bag of dirty drug money which no one can claim just sitting there for the taking.
There were no witnesses, but small time drug dealer Travis Clay figures out what happened to the bag of money which should be in his possession. Stroby alternates his present tense storytelling between Joette and Travis.
The COVID crisis is hinted at in only one line about people worrying if their colds are “the virus” again. It’s a small detail that creates a link to the real world even if we’ll never have to decide whether or not we would take a bag of money from an accident scene. Similarly, Stroby also wove in real Jersey situations about Superstorm Sandy and how property owners like the motel’s owner getting relief funds but didn’t use them to repair anything. Readers will get a thorough sense of the economy and how the people are suffering in Stroby’s Jersey Shore.
Who among us doesn’t know what it’s like to have all your options sitting on hold because of the economy? Joette wants to take action in her familial life — getting her mother’s bills at the nursing home paid on top of the bills from her deceased husband’s care already piled up and weighing on her.
Grief is a sea, a counselor told her, at one of the group meetings she went to just after his death. Sometimes it’s flat and calm. Other days, a sudden wave can drag you under without warning.
Halfway through, Joette has to think twice about her plans and the money she swiped from the accident scene. Her character evolves from a broke motel clerk worried about bills and her grief to this new Joette she couldn’t have expected: a thief and nearly a murderer.
As for the story arc of Travis Clay, he also goes through changes. He has one plan with his partner Cosmo, but he doesn’t stick to it. Travis only cares about himself and his own survival. There’s a perfect moment of a crime trope where the bad guys are talking about this deal being the last one and then they’ll retire — go straight or take some other path. You know what Travis is thinking. You know he’s the kind of character with no loyalty. Two-thirds of the way through the book, Travis is firm in who he really is and that there won’t be a “retirement” for him and Cosmo.
The stakes are raised in a series of moves that take readers to the final act. The characters go through hoops, driving around to get all the money from Joette’s hiding places, all the while with a gun set on them. The reversal of fortune for Joette comes at a thrilling, intense, stressful climax.
Rating: 5 stars