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Posted: Friday, March 14, 2014 1:36 pm | Updated: 10:55 am, Mon Jul 21, 2014.

I read “The Weight of Blood” in one sitting, aghast at the heart-stopping, uncompromising plot by Laura McHugh, a Columbia, Mo., author. McHugh loosely based her debut book on a murder that occurred in Lebanon.

McHugh delivers a seamy, hard-hitting mystery, centering on the evil underside of human nature — deviant behavior from men driven by greed and desire. Expect a page-turner set in the Ozarks.

The action kicks off with a horrifying crime. Cheri Stoddard, a mentally challenged teenager is discovered brutally murdered, her body dismembered. Initially, the townspeople had believed Cheri was a runaway but her friend Lucy Dane knew that wasn’t the case.

When Cheri’s body is found a year later, it’s a shock for the small town of Henbane, and hysteria ensues, but as time passes, the horror and fear fade — too soon for Lucy, herself no stranger to tragedy.

When Lucy was a baby, her mother Lila walked into Old Scratch Cavern, gun in hand, never to be seen again. Her death was believed to be a suicide. Years later, Lucy pines for details about her mother, yet Lucy’s loss is shrouded in mystery.

Lucy gets no answers from her father Carl or from his much older brother Crete, a loving presence in Lucy’s life. Crete offers her a job at his store and canoe rental business in Henbane. It’s there that Lucy gets reacquainted with Daniel, a flame from high school. Together they begin to unravel shocking secrets that involve many in the community.

This multi-layered story stretches familial bonds to the breaking point, stripping your nerves along the way. It’s quite a first book by one of Missouri’s own.

Author Laura McHugh will be at Left Bank Books, 399 Euclid, in St. Louis next Wednesday, March 19, at 7 p.m. for a book talk followed by a signing.

***

Three California women have something in common; they’re married to the same man, Dr. John Taylor, age 62, a well-known and philanthropic plastic surgeon. When the good doctor turns up dead in a hotel room, the women’s lives become further entwined in “Circle of Wives,” the newest literary offering from Alice LaPlante, who previously penned the bestseller “Turn of Mind.”

Hot on the case is young Samantha Adams, a newbie detective in a longtime, going-nowhere relationship. Adams is a self-professed “quitter” having walked out on a teaching career mid-year, but Adams digs in to solving Dr. Taylor’s case when it becomes clear the physician has been injected with potassium that brought on the heart attack that killed him.

Adams is certain one of the wives is to blame, and relentlessly questions each, beginning with Dr. Taylor’s longtime, ice-queen of a wife, Deborah. Attractive and proper, her societal feathers are easily ruffled. The last thing Deborah wants is a scandal to stain her upper-crust standing in Palo Alto.

Readers next meet MJ, a financial analyst married to Dr. Taylor for five years. She’s appalled, “ . . . what do you do when your husband not only turns up dead, but already married?” she ponders. Grief-stricken, MJ had great hope for her second marriage, one that would finally provide her with happiness.

Those dreams are dashed, as are Dr. Helen Richter’s, an oncologist Dr. Taylor marries just six months after he weds MJ. The two physicians become attracted to each other while treating a young child with cancer.

One by one, the wives’ lives are revealed in alternating chapters, as are details of Samantha’s history and her struggles to remain on the case even though her superior threatens to reassign it when she hasn’t made a breakthrough.

There are surprises in “Circle of Wives,” and some come early on. Like the bomb Deborah drops transforming the book from a predictable thriller to a “gosh what’s going to happen next?” must-read. Though “Circle” concludes a bit too late and hastily, the novel is highly original and captivating.

***

Guest Review by Nell Whittaker.

“Bark” is a collection of eight stories by Lorrie Moore, published 16 years after “Birds of America.” Her new collection is concerned with the passing of time and the various limbos that their inhabitants find themselves in during middle age — after a divorce, after a separation, after youth.

There are a number of possible reasons for Moore’s choosing “Bark” as her title. The first story is titled “Debarking,” a word that describes the stripping of bark from wood. It also has aural connotations to embarking, which also applies here as Ira, the main character, embarks on a new relationship post-divorce. The word also has obvious canine connotations. The woman that Ira is involved with, Zora, has a teenage son who has a “barking, howling voice.” Like a young dog, he is terrifying in his masculinity as well as his youth, and Moore allows a subtle comparison to Ira’s daughter Bekka, who, tellingly, has two cats.

Bark grows on trees over time — so, too, have the people in these stories grown their own protective layers through family and relationships. These stories detail their undignified debarking, as they slip from relationship to solitude.

Several of the stories are set on the brink of larger world events, America’s invasion of Iraq being one of them. Having a world crisis as a backdrop allows Moore to create an almost dystopic world for her characters to inhabit, where youth has run out and the small sense of impending doom is reflected and enlarged in what is happening in the world.

Despite the morose mood that pervades this collection, Moore finds very real humor in the absurdities of everyday life, absurdities that are wryly observed. In “Thank You For Having Me,” bridesmaid’s dresses are described as being the color of prescription drugs, “the seafoam green of low-dose clonazepam.” In “Paper Losses,” a mother accidentally refers to her young twin daughters, Beth and Dale, as Death and Bail, “as they buried their several Barbies in the sand and then lifted them out again with glee.”

Moore has created a book littered with expertly sketched characters who find themselves alternately in despair and in moments of hilarity. Her dry and distinctive way of creating her helpless, and instantly familiar characters, makes this collection powerful and moving. The book could easily fall into misery, but instead Moore lifts it into a space where it is touching and thought-provoking.

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