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Genre: Romance Thriller
Overall Rating: 4 stars
Editing and Proofreading: 3/5
Linguistics and Stylistics: 4/5
Plot Development: 4/5
Plot Pacing: 4/5
Character Development: 6/5
Rating: 18+ for profanity, violence, and sexual situations
If you interview every inmate in any given prison, I would estimate that nine out of ten would tell you they were innocent, they were framed, that evidence was planted, that the defense lawyer was incompetent, and on and on. While no one believes that this many people are wrongfully convicted, it does occasionally happen. In Riddle by Elizabeth N. Newton, Kort, a twenty-ish man of Native American origin, is returning to his home town of Riddle (in an unnamed state but hinted to be Nebraska) after serving eight years for manslaughter. He had been wrongfully convicted of killing his girlfriend Desiree when they were teenagers. Having accepted his life circumstances and determined to move on, Kort immediately sets out to put the past behind him by getting a job and trying to stay out of trouble, knowing that any attempts to clear his name would be useless. When a beautiful drifter named Grace’s car breaks down in Riddle, leaving her stranded, the two immediately strike up a friendship, which quickly leads to a romance, and she encourages him to do all he can to prove his innocence. Unfortunately, neither of them can enjoy any peace due to the constant harassment and stalking by folks in town who, well, I’ll just say have their own reasons to stalk and harass. It’s only when a gruesome death occurs that Kort snaps out of his denial and realizes just how far some people in Riddle will go to get their revenge and satisfy their own agendas.
None of these reasons have to do with Kort’s heritage. In the opening scene, Kort experiences a juvenile racist taunt, and the first couple of chapters will have you believe that Kort was set up because he was the only native American in town. Indeed, Kort believes that this was one of the reasons he was accused of the murder: a close-minded, racist town wanted rid of its only Native American inhabitant (and for the record, I am Cherokee and have never experienced any anti-Native sentiments. I’m not saying or implying that prejudices don’t exist, and in her introduction, Mrs. Newton informs the reader that before Congress passed legislation outlawing it, Native American children were routinely forcibly removed from their families in an attempt to “civilize” them. I was not aware of this before. In this novel, it’s not clear why the inhabitants of Riddle are specifically prejudiced against Native Americans but no other race). However, Kort’s ethnicity is barely mentioned after this scene. He was the last person seen with Desiree before her death, he had had brushes with the law in the past, he had a very strong potential motive (which I won’t give away here), there was DNA evidence linking him to the crime scene and the struggle, and Kort himself confessed that he and Desiree had an argument right before her death. It seems pretty reasonable to me that he would be convicted of her murder and that people would be uncomfortable in his presence. However, I can understand Kort’s frustration at the injustice. For the town pariah, Kort has a lot of supporters: his new boss, Frank; his friend Jack, who runs the diner; his parole officer, Jeri; even the detective who investigated the murder who had his doubts from the beginning. He never appears to have any shortage of company.The other characters are superbly developed and you feel for them (even the bad guys). Kort’s relationship with his adoptive mother changes profoundly over the course of the novel, and these changes make a great subplot.
The best part of the book is the blooming romance between Kort and Grace, the ultimate “us against the world” couple who are determined to beat the odds, overcome their past (Grace has more baggage than an airport carousel but still manages to remain strong, independent, and self-confident. I wish I could pull her out the novel just so I can have a conversation with her), and make a new life for themselves. I would love to see a sequel to this book just to know how things for them turned out.
Riddle is not a “whodunit” murder mystery. It becomes clear fairly quickly who really should have been in prison for the murder. The real suspense comes from the inter-character drama. The novel uses a sequence of shocking scenes rather than plot twists to create its suspense. The ending, while thoroughly satisfying and has its own shocking scene, contains no major surprises. It’s like being in a movie theater, watching a slasher film, and watching someone walk into a room where you (the viewer) know a killer is hiding, It’s a little tough not to shout “don’t go in there!” Riddle is more of a drop tower than a roller coaster; you will float merrily along and then suddenly a bombshell is dropped.
Riddle does get repetitive at times. It seems that in every chapters, someone is apologizing, making sure someone is ok, or “has a bad feeling” about something. In the grand scheme of the novel, though, this is not that big of a deal. Nor is this an error per se; excessive repetition just happens to be a personal pet peeve of mine, and that’s not the author’s fault. Riddle can also benefit from a quick re-edit to fix some punctuation errors and typos, and from a reformatting. But please don’t let this discourage you from buying this treat of a book. These are things that are easily fixable and probably will be in a short time, and even if they’re not, Riddle is still an amazing read.
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