Since 2012, I've known a couple of things about Owen Laukkanen -- he can write engrossing thrillers and he can fill them with compelling characters. He's proven it again and again and again. Either one of those traits would likely keep me coming back for more, but you put the two of them together? Fughetaboudit. So when I read the premise for Deception Cove I figured I was in for a treat.
So, Jess Winslow is a multi-tour Afghanistan Vet, one more Marine with PTSD and too many memories that will haunt her dreams (and waking life). She's sent home after word comes that her husband's died, but isn't really ready for civilian life. She gets a service dog, Lucy, and tries to move home. Sadly, her dead husband was desperate to better their circumstances and made some very foolish and criminal choices. One of these choices put her husband in the crosshairs of the corrupt local deputy sheriff (and soon to be corrupt local sheriff). Now that he's gone, the deputy focuses on Jess -- she has something he wants (don't ask her what or where it is), and he'll try to break her until she gives it to him. For starters, he takes Lucy from her, exaggerates the circumstances and severity of her biting him and schedules her destruction.
On the other side of the country, a convicted felon is released from prison, after spending about half of his life there. He's not one of those who claims he was innocent, he knows what he did and takes full responsibility for it. But he's paid his debt to society and wants to try to build something. The first thing he does outside of prison is to contact the people behind a dog training program he'd been a part of. He'd spent months training Lucy, getting her to trust him and getting her ready to help out someone like Jess. When Mason hears that Lucy's about to be put down, he can't believe it. He refuses to believe his girl would attack someone and wants to find out what happened. He borrows money from his sister and takes a bus from Michigan to the end of the road in Washington to see what's going on.
Jess and Mason form an uneasy alliance -- Mason only wanting to help Lucy (but he knows helping Jess helps Lucy), and Jess is unable to trust anyone, but knows she needs help saving Lucy (and maybe herself). They set out to find out what her husband took from the criminals the deputy works for, where he hid it and how they can get out of this jam intact. They're not out to set things right, they're not trying to bring criminals to justice (they're not against it, don't get me wrong), they don't even care about vengeance -- they just want to survive.
I'm not going to spend a lot of time on the corrupt deputy and his flunkies -- or the people they all work for -- but a quick word. They feel very real, high school bullies who find themselves in positions of adult power, and no reason to act any differently. Big fish in a small pond, but who want something better. Like Jess' husband, they make some foolish and wrong choices to get that. It's understandable that they find themselves in the situation they're in, but that doesn't excuse their actions for a moment. Beyond that, you really need to see Laukkanen's treatment and development of them.
Laukkanen has pulled a Bradley Cooper and cast his own dog, Lucy, as the common ground for these two characters. It's easy to see why. She's a good girl, one of the best, but she's not a super-dog (no offense to Walt Longmire's Dog or Peter Ash's Mingus). She gets scared, and runs from danger. But she's loyal, and knows what Jess needs from her. And she knows a creep when she sees/smells one.
I want to pause for a moment and say, yeah, this hits some similar beats to Spencer Quinn's The Right Side -- an injured Vet who finds herself helped by a dog as she struggles with civilian life -- and some small town injustice. But Jess and LeAnne are very different women -- as Goody and Lucy are very different dogs -- and their situations aren't the same. But if you liked one of these novels, you should check out the other.
Yes, a lot of this book plays out the way you know it will from the description. But not all of it. More than once, Laukkanen will make you say, "Wait--what?" But even better, you will keep turning the pages as fast as you can, absolutely riveted -- even during the largely predictable parts. That's no mean feat, but Laukkanen will make it look easy (note the use of the word "largely" -- none of it is as predictable as you think, and the plot takes some unanticipated turns). More than anything, you will care about this odd pair and the canine glue that holds them together.
The last chapter just seals things for me -- great ending. It's not like I was on the fence about whether I liked the book or not, because I did. It's not even something that made me like the book more -- it's more like it ratified my opinion. "You know all the positive thoughts and inclinations you had about this book? Well, guess what, Sparky? You were right."
From the setup to the execution and all points in between, Deception Cove delivers the goods. Anyone who read just one of his Stevens and Windermere books knows that Laukkanen can write a compelling thriller with great characters. In these pages, he shows that in spades -- you take a couple of characters that could easily be cardboard cutouts and instead makes them three-dimensional people with depth, flaws, and a relatability -- and throw them into a great thriller. What more could anyone want? A wonderful dog. Guess what? He's got one of those, too. Leaving the reader wanting little more than a sequel. Go, get this one.