A Killing at the Creek | Book Review


“All in the world Elsie Arnold wanted was a murder case,” and in A Killing at the Creek, Nancy Allen gives her one.

This is the second crime novel in Allen’s series of mysteries set in fictional McCown County in southwest Missouri. Like the first novel, The Code of the Hills, Allen’s writing is pitch-perfect in its depiction of the Ozarks, right down to a throwaway mention on page 116 of the Assemblies of God—“No drinking, no cussing. No dancing”—which is headquartered in Springfield. (I’m an AG minister and Springfield resident.)

Elsie Arnold is an assistant prosecutor in McCown County, and she wants to try a murder case to advance her career. The problem is that her boss, Madeleine Thompson, hates her and takes the case herself, assigning second chair to Chuck Harris, the newly hired chief assistant from Kansas City. (Newly hired in no small part to block Elsie’s advancement.) But when police capture a suspect, who’s a 15-year-old juvenile from St. Louis, Thompson and Harris get cold feet and had Elsie the legal briefs.

The suspect, Tanner Monroe, is an unlikable kid who insists on an ODDI defense (“other dude did it”). His cagey defense lawyer, Billy Yocum, seeks a “MD or D” defense—“mental disease or defect”— since there’s no evidence of the other dude, but Monroe refuses to cooperate. What starts out as a strong case gets weakened due to questionable prosecutorial decisions and Elsie’s romantic entanglement with Bob Ashlock, the detective running the investigation. Will these errors doom Elsie’s prosecution, or will she close the case?

I liked this novel in most respects. What Sue Grafton did for Santa Barbara in her Alphabet Mysteries is like what Nancy Allen is doing in these Ozark Mysteries. The book has a strong regional flair, the plot is believable, and the legal ups and downs of the story reflect the author’s years as a Missouri prosecuting attorney.

Even so, the last few pages have a deux ex machina feel to it. Allen drives the story line forward and then, seemingly out of nowhere, she takes the solution of the case in a suddenly different direction. To this reader, that ending just didn’t set right.

Still, I liked the novel and read it in one sitting. I look forward to reading the remaining two books in the series and hope more are forthcoming.

Book Reviewed
Nancy Allen, A Killing and the Creek: An Ozarks Mystery (New York: WitnessImpulse, 2015).

P.S. If you liked my review, please vote “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

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The Code of the Hills | Book Review


The Code of the Hills is the first of four (so far) crime novels by Nancy Allen featuring Elsie Arnold. It is set in the Ozarks of southwestern Missouri, in Barton, the seat of McCown County, for which Elsie works as a prosecuting attorney. Both the town and the county are fictional, but Allen’s portrayal of southwestern Missouri is pitch perfect, from the patois (you’uns, not y’all) to the overworked foster care system, from the poverty and meth to backcountry Pentecostals. The Baldknobbers—a vigilante group from the postbellum era—get a nod, and there’s even a jibe or two thrown in at Springfield, the third largest city in Missouri and “The Queen City of the Ozarks.”

The crime at the heart of The Code of the Hills is incest, and the mystery is whether Elsie Arnold will be able to successfully prosecute Kris Taney for it. (Even the name Taney has Ozarks resonance, by the way, since Taney County is real and has its own lake, Lake Taneycomo—for Taney County, Missouri, of course.) The witness who called in the crime—Kris’s brother Al—has disappeared. The Taney women—mom Donita, daughters Charlene, Kristy, and Tiffany—aren’t cooperating. Mom has taken up with a new beau while Dad is in jail, which Kris’s defense attorney thinks points to a setup. A key piece of evidence gets incinerated. A group of misinformed “Apostolic” Pentecostals take up Kris’s defense on the grounds of “family values,” and make Elsie’s life miserable in the process. (The scene where their itinerant pastor sets them straight in a sermon was a hoot, at least to this member of the clergy.) And Elsie’s incompetent boss—Madeleine Thompson—has it out for her. If Elsie loses the case, she loses her job.

You’ll have to read The Code of the Hills to discover the outcome. (And to find out what “the code of the hills” is.) What I liked about the novel is that it tells a story that feels like the Ozarks. If you live here, you’ll know what I mean. As a former foster parent, I’ve seen the reality of abuse and neglect, the poverty of many families, and the overwhelmed resources of the state of Missouri up close. This novel has a ring of truth to it. That’s probably because Nancy Allen is a native Missourian, former prosecuting attorney, and law professor at Missouri State University in my home town of Springfield.

I enjoyed The Code of the Hills. It kept me turning pages, which is my number-one criteria for mystery novels. So, I look forward to reading the next three novels in the series. I’m sincerely hoping Elsie Arnold comes to Springfield in one of them…

Book Reviewed
Nancy Allen, The Code of the Hills: An Ozarks Mystery(New York: WitnessImpulse, 2014).

P.S. If you liked my review, please vote “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.