Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Body In The Woods by April Henry

The Body In The Woods is about an ecletic trio of teens who join a local search and rescue organization and find themselves drawn into a murder investigation that soon sees one of them being hunted down by that very same killer.

Alexis Frost is a tall, pretty sixteen year old girl who lives alone with her mentally ill mother. They have moved around alot but manage to survive on her mother's disability cheque and food stamps. Alex can't let anyone get close to her because they might discover the secret she's hiding - her mentally unstable mother who stays up days on end and spends her time "blessing" people in the park. Volunteering for SAR was the only way that Alexis can stand out on her college applications. She's never been able to fit in and hopefully this will help her make friends.

Sixteen year old Nick Walker lives with his mother and older brother, Kyle. His father was killed in Iraq when Nick was four and he doesn't remember much about his dad. Nick wants to be in the military just like his father who was awarded the Bronze Star but he fears he's not brave enough. Nick has joined SAR to prove that he is capable of "unimaginable feats of bravery".

Ruby McClure is a strange girl with a keen interest in a number of eccentric topics including birds, continuity errors, true crime and gum flavours. Ruby does everything "by the book" but she has trouble fitting in. She observes people and then creates a character that allows her to blend in. She's hoping that being a part of SAR will help her fit in.

Henry tells her story from the perspective of the three teens as well as the murderer who begins planning his next victim. Alexis, Nick and Ruby are  the newest uncertified members of Portland's Search and Rescue (SAR). On a Tuesday in November, they receive their first call-out from the Portland County Sheriff's office to assist in the search for a missing autistic man in Forest Park. They assemble there with Jon Partridge, one of the adult advisers and the sheriff's deputy, Chris Nagle. All the teens are assembled and in an oversight the three uncertified teens, Alexis, Nick and Ruby are placed together in one group. They are given a trail to search that is unlikely to lead to them finding Bobby Balog, the missing autistic man. On the trail they meet several people; a man jogging with two dogs, a man in his early thirties carrying a duffel bag, a homeless man with black dreads, and a heavy-set white haired man with binoculars who reclaims the birder's notebook Alexis  Instead, Alexis finds a murdered girl, lying off the trail, with only part of her face visible underneath the leaves.

After summoning the other two of her team, Alexis shows them where the body is. Ruby immediately examines the person, and discovers that it is a girl who is has possibly been strangled. Jon arrives on the scene, and shortly after the EMTs and police arrive. All three teens are assigned a volunteer from the Trauma Intervention Program to help them cope with what they have experienced. Alexis meets her volunteer, Bran Dawson who seems drawn to her and wishes to help her.

Meanwhile the teens are interviewed by Detective Harriman. Ruby, a stickler for details, questions Harriman about every aspect of his questioning. The detective tells the teens their parents have been notified but that they are not allowed to talk to anyone about what they have seen. Ruby's parent's reaction is to forbid her from continuing to work in SAR because they fear it will feed her obsession about crime.  Everyone is called by the next day to do a ground search for evidence and Ruby is determined to be a part of this. Alexis's mother is too far gone, after being off her meds for weeks, to really understand what is happening.

Furious at being banned from SAR, Ruby searches on the internet and discovers that another girl was killed in a Portland park only a month earlier. Ruby believes that police have made several errors in the investigation and she decides that she will talk to Harriman the next day after the ground search.  Ruby continues to be obsessed about the crime, convinced that the murder of the girl in the woods, who has been identified as Miranda Wyatt, is the work of a serial killer. Harriman disagrees with her theory and eventually arrests a man for the crime. However, Ruby, Alexis and Nick efforts to solve Miranda's murder result in one of them becoming the next planned victim.

The Body In The Woods is a short, face paced novel that is filled with plenty of police procedurals and search and rescue information. The kernel of the idea for this novel came about when April Henry learned about her friends' daughter's involvement in the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office Search and Rescue. The teens who volunteer for MCSO SAR undergo rigorous training as their work involves not only helping to find people lost in the woods but also searching for evidence and recovering scattered remains. Henry has done her research and it shows in this novel. The investigation surrounding the murder of the girl found in the woods includes not only the procedures police use but also debunks some of the misinformation TV crime shows perpetuate. Readers interested in the backstory behind the novel can check out this webpage on April Henry's website. Henry's website is filled with many interesting pages including one that talks about her grandfather murdering her grandmother's boyfriend!

The real strength of this book is the eccentric principal characters who make the novel interesting and more than just a mystery murder. Each character is very unique, having very different families and backgrounds. Each has their own difficulties to overcome in life, making them realistic and appealing. Unfortunately giving the killer a narrative destroys some of the suspense the author builds as he plans his next murder.

The Body In The Woods is the first installment in April Henry's new Point Last Seen crime series. It's an excellent short novel for those interested in mysteries and with its short chapters and great cover, may appeal to reluctant readers.

Book Details:
The Body In The Woods by April Henry
New York: Christy Ottaviano Books, Henry Holt and Company    2014

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