Saturday, April 22, 2017

To Catch A Killer by Sheryl Scarborough

To Catch a Killer is a somewhat predictable murder mystery. Author Sheryl Scarborough is a forensics buff who has incorporated her knowledge into the novel; readers interested in basic forensic science won't be disappointed.

Erin Blake lives in Iron Rain, Oregon with her mother's best friend, Rachel. Erin's mother, Sarah Blake was murdered fourteen years ago. Erin was only a toddler at the time and survived three days alone beside the corpse of her murdered mother. With the identity of her father unknown, Rachel took in Erin.

Once again Erin finds herself at the scene of a murder - this time involving her beloved biology teacher, Miss Laura Peters. Erin found her body lying in a pool of blood when she went to drop off DNA samples for Miss Peters to analyze. She tells the police officer named Baldwin that she saw someone running away from Miss Peters' house and identifies the person as Journey Michaels, a classmate.

Rachel arrives at the police station where her best friend,  Detective Sydney Rankle works. As she's leaving, Journey Michaels is being brought in for questioning. The next morning Rachel questions Erin about why she was at Miss Peters home early in the morning.  Erin doesn't tell Rachel what really happened and why she was leaving a bloodied towel in Miss Peters mailbox. She tells Rachel that she knows so much about forensics from Rachel's brother Victor's books on the subject. "Uncle" Victor works for the FBI. Rachel is not supportive of Erin's interest in forensics as she believes it is a trigger for her based on what happened when she was younger. But Erin, her best friend Spam and her other friend Lysa run a Cheater Check club where they offer forensic services to their fellow students to see if boyfriends/girlfriends are cheating.

It turns out that Erin is quite keen on forensics. She has a secret door in her closet that leads to the attic where her mother's old furniture is stored and where she is also hiding the box containing evidence from her mother's murder.The attic also houses Erin's beginnings of a small lab complete with a microscope. Erin tells her friends that there were three potential male suspects in her mother's case that she considers might be her father. From her mother's evidence she knew their identities and was able to surreptitiously obtain DNA evidence with the intention of determining if any are her father. Miss Peters was going to do the tests.

When Erin returns to school, she attempts to talk with Journey but he seeks her out and is furious, handing her a thin strip of white and blue fabric claiming she dropped it. Erin is shocked because the fabric Journey Michaels hands her is a missing part of her mother's dress. Erin gets a pass home from Mr. Roberts, the principal and unexpectedly finds police confiscating her laptop and other possessions. Sydney tells her that Journey is cleared but that she is a person of interest. Luckily the police do not search the attic. Erin has no idea what the piece of fabric means and she's determined to speak with Journey.

They meet after school and compare what happened that night outside Miss Peters house. Journey reveals that he had brought a toothbrush to Miss Peters because he is trying to clear his father of murder. Erin takes Journey to her house and shows her the box of evidence and her budding crime lab. Erin tells him that the tie he gave her was part of her mother's dress and has been missing for fourteen years. She believes if they can figure out who left the material in the van and why they can solve both her mother and Miss Peter's murders.


To Catch A Killer features four teens who attempt to solve the murder of their biology teacher through the use of forensics. The teens are led by the main character, Erin Blake who was present when her mother was murdered years ago. Erin is a forensics buff like her "Uncle" Vince who works for the FBI. She reads all his books on forensics procedures.

Crime novels create suspense partly by concealing the identity of the perpetrator. But in To Catch A Killer, readers will clue-in early on to the identity of the murderer as this character's behaviour stands out as creepy and just strange. However, Erin doesn't notice because she considers this person a close friend.

The focus of the story is on the forensics used to solve crimes and Scarborough delivers on that count.  Scarborough incorporates many forensic facts into her story by having Erin either practice them or mention them to her friends. There is an eleven-page description of Victor and Erin conducting a DNA extraction at Erin's house. Despite the story being engaging, many of the situations seemed contrived to move the plot along. For example, principals don't usually give out passes (most schools have attendance offices that do this or vice principals - which did not exist in this story) but it was necessary to have Erin go home to discover the police searching her bedroom. Another strange situation involved Rachel's lame attempt to convince Erin that there was no intruder in their house despite the fact that Erin saw the man and had physical evidence (the footprint) of his presence. The fabric from Erin's mother's dress was the clue that linked the person who murdered Sarah Blake to the murder of Miss Peters yet at the reveal near the end, the reader has to wonder why that person was carrying around a piece of fabric for fourteen years (and it still seemed in good condition) and dropped it in Journey's van?

The characters in To Catch A Killer are interesting, especially Spam, but not as developed as they could be. Scarborough does give more detail on the relationship between Erin and Spam and of course, there's a budding romance between Journey and Erin.

Overall, To Catch A Killer is a fun read, with an exciting conclusion. It's not Agatha Christie but for those who love mysteries and lots of forensics, it's a winner. Scarborough ties up most of the loose ends but not all.

Book Details:

To Catch A Killer by Sheryl Scarborough
New York: Tom Doherty  Associates       2017
320 pp.

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