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Long Bright River

By Liz Moore, An intimate family drama about substance abuse wrapped up in a mystery-thriller package

Long Bright River by Liz Moore came out last month, and I put it on my shortlist because I figured a family-type drama with mystery elements would be right up my alley. I’d actually never heard of Liz Moore before this, but this book was a Good Morning America book club pick, so it popped up on my radar.

Plot Summary

For the Detailed Plot Summary, click here or scroll all the way down.

Michaela “Mickey” Fitzpatrick is a police officer in Kensington area of Philadelphia, a lower-income neighborhood that has been hit hard by the opioid crisis. When a string of dead bodies are discovered, they soon identify that each involves the same M.O., a prostitute who is killed by strangulation.

The murders prompt Michaela to try to track down her estranged younger sister, Kacey, who is a sex worker, only to discover that Kacey has gone missing for some time. As Michaela searches for her sister and the culprit, she’s forced to come to terms with her childhood and the past that lead the two of them down divergent roads.

See Long Bright River on Amazon.

Book Review: The Good Stuff

Though Long Bright River contains many of the requisite mystery-thriller elements like plot twists and carefully placed “reveals,” it also has a fully formed and substantive family drama that serves as the book’s beating heart. The story of Mickey and Kacey and the role of substance abuse in their lives gets the full amount of attention it requires.

I would say for most mystery-thrillers, if there’s some type of character development and a relatively consistent personality for its characteres, I tend to be pleansantly surprised. This book offers a lot more than that. Understanding how Mickey and Kacey become the people they are and understanding their two divergent paths are a large part of the story. The book works because the author clearly prioritizes the telling of that story.

Book Review: Some Caveats

The book moves a little slowly, especially for something marketed as a sort-of-thriller. I think the backstory and the insightful character details add a lot to the story, but I’m just saying this as a warning to anyone who’s expecting a high-octane murder mystery type novel. This is more of a human and family drama with a few thriller-mystery elements mixed in occasionally.

The book also deals a lot in the topic of drug addiction. It’s not a bad thing, but just something to be aware of if you have an interest or lack of interest in the topic. It also contributes to the feeling that this is kind of a depressing book. I think it’s probably realistic when it comes to substance addiction, but I wouldn’t describe this as a “fun” story.

There’s also no quotation marks in the book by the way, which was fine for the most part, though it slowed down my reading. Mostly, I just don’t see the benefit in leaving out punctuation unless it’s just a trite way of seeming “literary.” There’s one section where one character recounts a sequence of conversations to another and by god was it confusing. Seriously, punctuation exists for a reason, just use it.

Read it or Skip it?

Long Bright River is a sincere and intimate story about two sisters with troubled pasts, bound together with elements of mystery and suspense. It’s a book I really wanted to like more than I actually did. I thought the idea of a mystery novel with some more substance to it would be perfect for me. However, despite the meaningful and fully formed story at the novel’s center, I occassionally found this novel more relentlessly depressing than insightful.

Even with it’s many plot twists and turns, it’s a bit of a dreary and long book. There’s just a sense of hopelessness in the story that I didn’t really enjoy sitting with for the lengthy duration of the book. The lack of quotation marks also slowed down my reading. Getting through it was a slog, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a fair amount of people DNF this book.

If you’re a patient reader, you might still consider this book. The writing is competent and the story is substantive and dilligently constructed, but it’s still just a little bit of a lengthy downer.I think people who don’t typically read mystery-thriller novels might actually like it more than those who do. Mystery fans should be aware of what they’re getting into if they are expecting a faster-paced novel, since this is more of a long haul than a quick, snappy book.

Did you read this book? What did you think? Feel free to share your thoughts below!

See Long Bright River on Amazon.


Detailed Book Summary (Spoilers)

Quick Synopsis

The section-by-section summary is below, but here's the quick version.

Mickey is a cop with a 4-year-old son, Thomas, in the Kensington area of Philadelphia, a low-income area struggling with the opioid crisis. She moved here to get away from Thomas's father, Simon. Mickey's estranged sister, Kacey, is an addict and a sex worker. When a series of strangulation murders of prostitutes begins to take place, Kacey has been missing for a while. Mickey beings to look for Kacey and recruits her former partner Truman, who is out on medical leave, to help. Her current partner is Eddie Lafferty. Meanwhile, Mickey's landlord, Mrs. Mahon mentions that a man has come by looking for her.

Mickey and Kacey were raised by their grandmother, Gee, because their parents are deceased (their mother died of an overdose and father left and later died). They were sent to an after school program run by the local police where Mickey was mentored by Simon Cleare, where he eventually seduced her. Meanwhile, Kacey began a slow descent into drug usage, dropped out of school and eventually got into sex work. We later learn that Simon found out about Kacey's sex work and impregnated her. So, Thomas is actually Simon and Kacey's child, though Mickey has full custody over him.

Mickey uses police resources to investigate Kacey's disappearance and tracks down a pimp and drug dealer named Connor "Dock" McClatchie she suspects is involved. At the same time, Mickey and Truman get a tip from a friend of Kacey's, Paula Mulroney, that a potential suspect in the strangulation murders may be a crooked cop who demands sex from prostitutes by threatening to arrest them. Truman suspects it's Simon. After Mickey pushes her supervisor, Seargant Ahern, to look into the crooked cop, Mickey suddenly learns that she's now under investigation by internal affairs for mis-using police resources on looking into her sister. Mickey is suspended from the force. Soon, homicide arrests a man, Robert Mulvey Jr., they think is responsible for the murders.

Months pass. Mickey learns that Gee saw Kacey not too long ago and Kacey is pregnant. She also discovers letters in Gee's house that indicate her father, Daniel Fitzpatrick, is still alive. Mickey goes to Delaware to see him. Mickey finds out that her father is the man that Mrs. Mahon saw around her apartment a few months ago. He is sober now and wanted to reconnect with Mickey and Kacey. Daniel reveals that he's trying to help Kacey get sober, so she has been staying with him.

Despite Mulvey being in custody, another strangulation murder happens, and this time the victim is Paula Mulroney (Mickey had previously disclosed Paula as the source of her information about the crooked cop). After Paula's funeral, Kacey tells Mickey that her partner is rumored to be the crooked cop. At first she thinks Kacey is referring to Truman (former partner), but it turns out to be Eddie Lafferty (new partner). With Dock's help, Kacey and Mickey confront him and Lafferty is arrested. Lafferty is confirmed to be the killer (his ex-wife was one of the victims).

Afterwards, Mickey quits the force. Kacey has her baby. The monitor it for signs of substance withdrawal.

Section-by-Section Summary

List

(The book opens with a list of names.)

Now

Michaela "Mickey" Fitzpatrick, 32, is an police officer in the Kensington area of Philadelphia. She is unmarried with a 4-year-old son, Thomas. Her boss Sergeant Ahern has assigned her to partner up with Eddie Lafferty, 43. Eddie has just been transferred into this district. Her previous partner of ten years was Truman Dawes, 52, who is out on medical leave.

She and Lafferty go to investigate a dead body found at the Tracks, an area of the city that's overgrown and no longer in use. The city has had mounting problems with drug overdoses in recent years. A syringe and tourniquet are on the ground next to the body, but Mickey also sees signs of strangulation. She calls it in as a possible homicide. She's relieved the dead body is not her sister, Kacey.

Then

In in summer of 2002, Fitzpatrick was 17 and found her younger sister Kacey passed out with a syringe in her arm. She and her sister's friend Paula Mulroney found her at someone's house a day after Kacey hadn't come home. In the ambulance, they use Narcan to revive her.

Now

Back at home, her landlord Mrs. Mahon notes that a man came by looking for her and describes him. Mickey realizes she must have been Simon, who is Thomas's father. Mickey moved here to get away from him. Mickey asks her to tell him that she no longer lives there if she sees that man again. Mickey then goes to pick up Thomas from daycare. Thomas's baby sitter is Bethany Sarnow, who has a flexible schedule but is very flaky. Bethany's flakiness then results in Mickey being a flaky employee, who does not endear her to Ahern.

Mickey keeps asking Ahern to follow up on the body they found near the Tracks, but he says it's up to Homicide. She's concerned that because it's just another "dead junkie hooker" that no one cares if she was strangled. Mickey also doesn't have a great relationship with Ahern, who tends to favor men who buddy up to him. She gets upset when Lafferty shrugs it off as well.

Then

Growing up, Mickey was quiet and introverted. Kacey was the opposite. She's talkative and extroverted, but also likes to break rules and push boundaries.

When Mickey was 11 and Kacey 9, they went to see The Nutcracker along with a bunch of other classmates as a prize for a school activity. They are dressed poorly compared to the other people there. At the performance, the children struggle to sit still. Kacey reaches out to hit a girl in front of her who is giving her dirty looks for making noise, and Mickey stops her. However, the girl's mom sees this and gets the two of them kicked out of the venue. When some kids laugh at Mickey's dress, Kacey punches one of them.

Now

Mickey asks not be partnered with Lafferty after his lack of empathy for the deceased prostitute, so she starts working alone. One morning, Detective Davis Nguyen reports two homicides that have occurred. Both victims were sex workers who were strangled to death. Davis notes that they are re-opening the case that Mickey had been inquiring about, and he asks the officers to all be on the lookout for leads.

Mickey worries about Kacey, who she has not seen around in a while. She also hasn't really spoken to her sister in five years, except for in a professional capacity when Kacey was brought in as a suspect. In those circumstances, they behave like strangers. Still, Truman was certain that Mickey would have applied to be a Detective already if weren't for her wanting to stay on patrols to look out for Kacey.

Mickey goes to Alonzo's Convenience Store. The proprietor knows both Mickey and Kacey, because Kacey and Paula (both of whom are sex workers and addicted to drugs) frequent his corner. Alonzo reports that Paula said Kacy's gone missing, and no one has seen her for a month.

Then

Back when Kacey and Mickey were still talking, they had discussed why things ended up so differently for the two of them. Kacey blamed their parents who abandoned them, and Gee (grandmother) who Kacey felt never really liked her. (Their grandfather died young, in a car accident.) Mickey was unsympathetic, saying that it was her childhood too.

Their mother Lisa (née O'Brien) got pregnant with Mickey at 18. Gee was the one who insisted that Lisa marry Daniel Fitzpatrick. Four years later, Lisa was dead from her addiction problem. Mickey, at a young age, took over much of the responsibilities of caring for Kacey. Their father moved out due to conflicts with Gee, who was not happy about taking on this burden. (Mickey also wondered if Lisa's death caused her to shut off emotionally.) They would see him sometimes, but eventually that stopped. A decade later they heard he had died.

Gee worked multiple jobs to help raise the girls. She found a free after-school program that was run by the Police Athletic League (PAL). One of the officers, Officer Cleare took an interest in Mickey and continued to encourage and mentor her. With Mickey focused on impressing Officer Cleare, she paid less attention to Kacey, who began getting into trouble. Kacey stopped attending PAL, and started hanging out with Paula and smoking. One day, Mickey finds some Oxycontin pills, which Kacey tells her are like extra strength Tylenol. Kacey also becomes sexually active.

When Kacey overdoses, Gee is harsh with Kasey, remembering the pain of losing Lisa in the same way, and slaps her. Mickey, turns to Officer Cleare, whose first name is Simon, for comfort (so now we know Officer Simon Cleare is Thomas's father).

Now

Mickey calls/texts around to see if anyone knows anything about Kacey's whereabouts, but no dice. Mickey also checks Kacey's facebook to see a message from someone named Sheila McGuire and a photo with a "Connor Dock Famisall". Meanwhile, a fourth strangulation victim is found, and it turns out the woman's name is Christina Walker.

Truman is out on leave because a man came and hit him with a baseball bat from behind while they were just chatting outside. The man was later arrested, but Mickey feels guilty for not preventing it or catching him when it happened. Mickey goes to Truman's home and confides in him about her concerns regarding Kacey, and he offers to help her look for Kacey. Truman finds a man, Mr. Wright, who know this guy "Dock". Mr. Wright is Truman's father's cousin and runs an (unauthorized) safe injection site (provides addicts with clean needles, etc.) behind his store, which Dock frequents. Mickey finds Dock, but he says he hasn't seen Kacey in a few months. That day, Mickey also books a man, Robert Mulvey, Jr. for domestic violence, who gives her a sense of unease.

Mickey goes home to learn that Bethany has done a bad job of taking care of Thomas once again (she was supposed to take him to the bookstore but didn't). Mickey thinks about Simon, and how he had stopped paying to help support Thomas, and when she had complained he threatened to us his connections to have Thomas taken away from her. So, Mickey had moved away and told him that he could see Thomas when he started paying again.

Mickey attends Thanksgiving dinner with the O'Briens, Gee's side of the family, at her cousin Ashley's house to ask about Kacey. Mickey is not close to them because she is a cop and a lot of them are seedier individuals. When Mickey shows up, they are surprised to see her. She sees her cousin Bobby O'Brien, who claims he's not involved with any of "that stuff" (drugs, presumably) anymore and doesn't know where Kacey is. But when Mickey mentions Dock, Bobby says that guy is bad news and says he'll look into it.

Then

After Kacey's overdose, Mickey started seeing Simon outside of PAL. Kacey, drops out of school, starts sneaking out a lot and dealing drugs. Mickey applies to college, but her grandmother refuses to fill out the paperwork. Mickey tells Simon, who encourages her to join the force instead. He also kisses her for the first time.

By 20, Mickey becomes a police officer. By 22, she puts a down payment on a house. Kacey is having bouts of sobriety and relapses, checking in at various times to rehab facilities or ending up in prison. Kacey finally gets incarcerated for a full year. When she gets out, she's totally sober and wanting to stay that way. Mickey offers to let her stay at her place. Things go well at first, but when Mickey catches her using six months later, she throws Kacey out.

Now

There's a lead on the homicides, a blurry video, but they haven't identified the man on it. Mickey shows the video around until Paula recognizes the man as a cop. Paula says he often comes around demanding blow jobs. Mickey tells Ahearn, but he's dismissive. Still, he promises to report it to internal affairs. Mickey discloses to him that Paula Maroney is her source.

Truman tells Mickey about meeting with Dock, pretending to buy drugs. Dock sold him the drugs, but offered up women as well. Dock showed him photos of women, and a photo of Kacey was there. Truman also notes that Dock's real name is Connor McClatchie. Mickey goes to the place Truman told her about and finds Connor. Connor has been beaten up by Bobby, but claims he doesn't know where Kacey is. When Truman returns to ask about Kacey, Dock says she's out of commission.

When Bethany bails on watching Thomas, Mickey resorts to asking Mrs. Mahon to watch him, who does a good job. Mrs. Mahon also mentions that the man showed up again, but she sent him away. Mickey later takes Thomas to his birthday party at McDonald's with his friends Carlotta and Lila. Coincidentally, Simon walks in, who is surprised to see them and barely acknowledges Thomas. Simon is with a woman who is carrying a child. He awkwardly introduces Mickey to the woman, his wife Jeanine. Simon also insists he hasn't been to Mickey's home, and Mickey realizes he's telling the truth. Simon is not the man who came to her house.

Mickey is called into internal affairs by Denise Chambers. However, it's not about the crooked cop, instead, Denise tells Mickey that she's the one under investigation. Denise cites the non-work-related investigatory stuff Mickey has been doing regarding Kacey as the grounds for the investigation. Mickey is now suspended. Mickey goes to see Truman and they talk. Truman reveals that he thinks the crooked cop may be Simon.

Truman and Mickey tell another cop, Mike DiPaolo, about their findings, but he doesn't believe her. When Mickey threatens to go to the media, DiPaolo tells Mickey they already caught the guy earlier that day. It's Robert Mulvey, who she previously arrested. Mickey is upset, gets drunk and tries to kiss Truman, who rebuffs her. He says he's back together with his ex-wife.

One day, around Christmas, Mikey goes home to find Thomas and Bethany missing. It turns out Bethany took him to the mall without bothering to leave a note, so Mickey fires Bethany. Mrs. Mahon comes by to check on them and offers to watch Thomas from time to time. Mrs. Mahon also tells Mickey about being a former nun, but falling in love and getting married.

Gee finally admits to seeing Kacey about two months ago. Mickey searches Kacey's room to figure out what she came for. Instead, she finds a stash of letters from their dad, which Gee has hidden from Mickey all her life. There's mentions of money, checks and a letter noting them as his beneficiaries, none of which Mickey knew about. Mickey realizes he may still be alive. It leads to a confrontation between Mickey and Gee, and Gee also reveals that Kacey was pregnant when she saw her.

Then

Mickey recalls that after Mickey threw Kacey out is when Kacey became a sex worker. Mickey confided in Simon, who claimed to be checking on her, but he ended up taking advantage of and impregnating Kacey. (Mickey thought Kacey was lying about being taken advantage of.) Soon, Thomas was born (so Thomas is actually Simon and Kacey's child) and Mickey brought in a lawyer to get full custody of him. Kacey can regain visitation rights be passing court-ordered drug tests, but she has never been able to. Thomas thinks that Mickey is his biological mother.

Now

Mickey goes to find her father, based on the address on the letters. He's alive. He has a daughter named Jessie. He says he went looking for her and Kacey a few months ago. After talking to him, Mickey realized her father is the man that Mrs. Mahon had encountered looking for her. Her father tells her that Kacey has since been living with him, and he's trying to help her sober up.

Mickey returns home to hear the news that there's a new strangulation murder, so it's possible Robert Mulvey is not the murderer after all. Paula Mulroney is dead. Mickey attends Paula's funeral as she waits for more news, and Kacey shows up. Kacey tells Mickey that the word on the street is that Truman killed Paula and is the crooked cop. However, Mickey tails Truman only to learn that he's been helping out in Kensington by distributing food, supplies and narcan around the neighborhood. Mickey tells Kacey who clarifies that they said it was her partner, and Mickey realizes they are referring to her new partner, Eddie Lafferty.

Kacey tells Mickey about how she started seeing Dock last summer and ended up getting pregnant. She knew she needed to get clean and started going to a clinic daily for methadone (used to treat drug addictions) doses, Kacey turned to Ashley for help, and she eventually moved in with their father who had reappeared in her life. Gee also told Kacey about how their mother started using after Mickey was born, so Kacey was substance-addicted as a baby.

Kacey goes to find Dock to see what he knows about Lafferty. Mickey finds Kacey, Dock and Lafferty upstairs at a cathedral. Lafferty charges at Mickey, which knocks her to the ground. However, Dock grabs her gun and tells Lafferty to get on the ground. Mike DiPaolo and Davis Nguyen soon show up to arrest Lafferty. After interrogation, it turns out one of the victims was Lafferty's ex-wife, who was an addict. Lafferty was also getting a cut of Dock's drug money (in exchange for "protection") which is how they knew each other.

As Kacey and Mickey leave the police station, Kacey cries, telling Mickey that all those victims were her friends. She also says that Mickey should have known stuff like this (crooked cops) goes on because Kacey had told Mickey about Simon taking advantage of her years ago, but Mickey didn't believe her.

List

The same list of names appears again, with a note that they are a long bright river of departed souls (people she knows who died from substance abuse).

Now

After the dust settles, Mickey wonders if Kacey will be able to finally stay clean. Mickey quits the force and gets a job at a car dealership. The news of police sexual assault is in the media. Mickey considers the good people on the force and the bad ones, and she thinks perhaps the most dangerous ones are people like Ahern who know stuff is going on but permit it to continue.

Kacey has her baby. She holds the newborn, which is being monitored for symptoms of withdrawal. As she does, another substance-addicted newborn nearby cries for its medicine.

See Long Bright River on Amazon.

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