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The Girl Next Door by Brad Parks – Newspapers, Murder, and Bears! Oh My! – Mystery Book Review

Award-winning mystery writer, Brad Parks, returns with his third book, The Girl Next Door, featuring amateur sleuth and newspaper reporter, Carter Ross.

Nancy Marino was forty-two-years-old and single. She waitressed at the State Street Grill, delivered Bloomfield, New Jersey's Eagle-Examiner early mornings; and was a shop steward for the International Federation of Information Workers (IFIW), Local 117.

On a hot, Friday morning in July, a speeding Cadillac Escalade struck and killed her while delivering her papers. The driver disappeared onto the Garden State Parkway; confident he committed an untraceable crime.

Who killed Nancy Marino and why?

Enter Carter Ross, an eight-year veteran news reporter for the Eagle-Examiner. Reading Marino's obituary, he decides to memorialize a fellow newspaper employee, even though he'd never met her. He plans to write a story portraying Marino as an ordinary person, who spent her life serving others, and, whose contributions to society went unnoticed until her passing. Attending her funeral, he learns that her death is being investigated as a homicide, which ignites his inquiring mind.

Ross is an unpretentious thirty-two-year-old. Educated at Amherst College, he lives in a two-bedroom, ranch-style house with his black-and-white, domestic, shorthaired cat, Deadline. He ubiquitously dresses in Khakis and button-down shirts; and drives a five-year-old Chevy Malibu.

Many people are aware of the anemic state of print newspapers, given today's digital age. Longtime community newspapers have either downsized considerably, both in content and staff, or folded.

Parks weaves these challenging industry times into the book's plot. During the halcyon days of the newspaper in the late nineties, the Eagle-Examiner signed its thousand-plus carriers to an unprecedented twenty-year contract, which included great wages. Now, given the industry's tough times, the newspaper wants concessions; and the Union isn't yielding.

As the IFIW shop steward, could Nancy Marino have been murdered to silence her opposition to contract negotiations?

Tina Thompson is Ross's editor. In her late thirties and single, she's expressed interest in Ross purely from a "chromosomal" perspective. Determined to experience motherhood, she's suggested Ross become her sperm donor-nothing more.

Parks has a talent for infusing humor throughout his mystery narratives. A bear is on the loose in Newark and Thompson assigns Ross the story. It's mainly done to delineate their professional roles, reminding him that despite their mutual sexual attraction, she calls the shots. Given his career experience, he balks at the task. She prevails.

Kevin "Lunky" Lungford is one of the newspaper's underutilized interns. At six foot five and 275 pounds, his hulk-like appearance easily conveys stupidity. While inept in the newsroom, Ross is taken aback by Lunky's appreciation for literature, reading the works of Emerson, Roth and Thoreau. Ross befriends Lunky, asking him to accompany him on his bear chase story, which proves comical.

Tommy Hernandez is the Eagle-Examiner's Newark City Hall beat writer. He's "as gay as taffeta and chintz," and an impeccable dresser. Despite his constant chiding of Ross for his lack of sartorial eloquence, Ross respects him as a fine young reporter. Hernandez plays Robin to Ross's Batman when solving crimes. Jibes about their sexual orientation differences are humorous.

Well-written fiction revers reality and Parks conveys it throughout his story. Ross discusses his observation of human behavior everywhere, "from the meanest housing project to the gilded symphony hall." He says, "And what always strikes me is that when you strip away the superficial differences in clothing, setting, and dialect, groups of people everywhere are more or less the same. We all have our pretenses. We all posture to a certain degree . But, ultimately, most of us are just trying to find a way to fit in. "

Anyone with Newark, New Jersey ties will appreciate Parks's area references, including the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, and the well-to-do communities of Glen Ridge and Montclair.

If you're looking for a fresh voice in mystery narrative, infused with humor, Brad Parks delivers in The Girl Next Door.

Brad Parks is one of numerous crime fiction writers who will be attending the annual Bouchercon Conference in Cleveland, Ohio, Oct 4-7, 2012. For details, visit: http://bouchercon2012.com .