‘Montana’ is a debut novel that’s worth a visit

Gwen Florio’s debut novel follows Lola Wicks, a veteran war correspondent, who comes back from Afghanistan to face the news that her newspaper is closing all its foreign bureaus and her new beat is the suburbs. Her editor deals with her loud displeasure by forcing her to take some paid time off to help her adjust her attitude.

At loose ends in a country where she has few friends anymore after years on the front lines, Lola heads to Montana to visit a former colleague. She’s shocked when she arrives in tiny Magpie, MT, to find Mary Alice murdered, possibly because she was on the verge of breaking a huge story. But about what? And who was so threatened by her investigative reporting that they felt the need to silence her permanently?

Lola throws herself into solving the mystery of her friend’s death, and all that time spent asking tough questions and being shot at in combat zones comes in surprisingly handy in rural Montana. No one, it seems, wants to talk to her about what might have happened to Mary Alice. But are they just small-town folks closing ranks on a stranger, or is one or more of them hiding something? She’s determined to find out, and the search for answers leads her to the nearby Indian reservation and beyond.

The mystery element here is pretty straightforward, with plenty of clues scattered about and a general sense of an author playing fair with her readers. Though the writing seemed a bit pedestrian at times, I found Lola and several of the lesser characters to be well-drawn and engaging. Some scenes early on hinted that Lola returned from Afghanistan the same way many combat soldiers do: with a raging case of post-traumatic stress disorder and a jumpy paranoia. But Florio does a good job of using the PTSD and Lola’s combat experiences sparingly, in ways that complemented her main storyline without overwhelming it.

All in all, an enjoyable debut novel. Lola Wicks is a character worth keeping, and I’d happily read more of her journalist/investigator adventures.

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