The Pine Barrens Stratagem, a Smoldering and Timely Crime Thriller by Ken Harris

The Bottom Line: A contemporary crime thriller that works on every level, from the smoldering investigation to the whipsaw banter between characters you’re bound to love.

Ken Harris’ The Pine Barrens Stratagem centers around Steve Rockfish, a private detective hit so hard by the COVID-19 pandemic that he’s on the verge of losing everything. Creditors are even threatening to repossess his car, a 2015 Dodge Challenger that he affectionately calls Lana. and he’s so desperate that he’s stealing from hardware stores. Rockfish’s business model has been upended by government lockdowns, spelling an end to “the good old days,” when Rockfish would get paid for digging up evidence that spouses were cheating on each other. These days, he complains, couples are more likely to be sitting at home together streaming Netflix.

Potential salvation comes when a Hollywood true crime producer named Angel asks Steve to dig into a case of child trafficking dating back to the 1940s. The client lives in California, and crimes took place in Pennsylvania, and the work itself would be in Jersey. Despite the lockdowns, Steve leaves Baltimore for Jersey, where Elk Township and the surrounding areas had been home to up to a dozen missing pregnant and unwed women in the 1940s.

Rockfish has more than enough personality and tenaciousness to carry the novel on his own. Nevertheless, Harris wisely pairs him with local computer repair expert Jawnie McGee, who describes herself as “a part-time investigator.” She’s also got skin in the game. McGee’s grandfather, a local cop, disappeared without a trace decades earlier, and she’s recently managed to acquire his old desk and its contents. The banter and chemistry between Rockfish and McGee works brilliantly. In addition to her deep understanding of local history and culture, McGee also brings technical expertise and communication tools (like the “Frownies Private Texting SMS” app) to the partnership. That comes in handy as Harris gradually brings the novel’s suspense to a boil.

Harris’ prose is consistently crisp across chapters that alternate between timelines and various points of view. Insights into Rockfish’s innate wit and deliberate character flaws work especially well. For example, Rockfish may be tenacious, but despite his financial predicament, he isn’t exactly a great closer (as when he nearly talks Angel out of hiring him), which makes him all the more endearing. Time will tell as to whether frequent observations into American pandemic-era politics, culture and art will stand the test of time (e.g. “MySharonavirus”), but at the moment they are gloriously sharp.

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