In Dea Poirier’s exceptional debut, Next Girl to Die, Claire Calderwood is a detective in Detroit who is relieved to have miles and years between herself and her hometown of Vinalhaven, Maine. After the murder of her sister when she was a teenager, Claire has tried to hold her sister’s secrets while blaming herself for the unsolved homicide.
When another girls dies in a similar way, Sergeant Michaels begs Calderwood to return home for the first time in more than a decade. Her mother is controlling and manipulative and her father is detached, going through life as a shell, and Calderwood has conflicting feelings about seeing them again.
Calderwood isn’t happy to be back, and the only thing that might rival that unhappiness is journalist Noah Washington. Noah tries to question her about her sister on her first day on the job in Vinalhaven. There’s plenty of tension between them, and it only intensifies when he turns up at the next murder scene, snapping photos.
Next Girl to Die delivers on every level. Calderwood is fleshed out fully in a very believable manner. The manifestations of survivor’s guilt and sewn into the fabric of who she is and the choices she makes. Calderwood’s emotional journey informs her actions. And one of Poirier’s strengths is resisting the urge to tack on a trite or simplistic resolution to years of emotional issues stemming from one of the greatest losses a teen girl could suffer. This isn’t the Hollywood quick-fix to years of suffering and extreme emotional suffering; this is a very realistic character who starts out broken and remains broken. There are no quick fixes, which makes some of the moments with Calderwood raw and painful, but ever so believable. Even as Calderwood makes progress she understands her trauma forever altered her, and that isn’t something that can be simply undone.
The realities of a challenging investigation on an island, removed from easy access to investigative resources, adds to the tension and presents the reality of investigative limits for cops; evidence processing takes time, crime scene techs can’t just hop in a chopper and whisk over to the crime scene in a minute, and the elements can damage and destroy evidence. (As someone who spent three years living on a small island I’d say Poirier nailed these setting components and used them authentically to inform the investigation.)
Poirier’s atmospheric writing transports the reader to the coast. Her delicious prose conveys the bite of the ocean breeze, the smell of the salt air, and the tension between characters. This is an evocative debut with exquisite writing that indulges your senses and compels your investment in Calderwood’s emotional journey as she races against time to solve a case that has haunted her for more than a decade. Calderwood is a worthy addition to the genre. Her spirit, like Poirier’s voice, is tenacious and captivating, compelling the reader’s investment in her journey, and Calderwood is determined to hold her own against her male counterparts. She doesn’t take the easy path in her personal or professional lives, and the fact that her emotional issues haven’t been glossed over with glib resolutions gives her plenty of room for growth in sequels to come.