Murder mystery begins almost 50 years ago

Jan Jones

“Heat Lightning” by Michaela Thompson was hard to put down. The story opens in the summer of 1975 in the small town of St. Elmo, Florida.

After divorcing her abusive husband, Coby, Alice Rhodes knew she couldn’t hold a job and properly care for her two young children, so Alice’s parents agreed to take them. Alice got a job as a secretary at the nearby Air Force base, rented a small apartment in Gulf Dream Vila and spent her evenings at the Gulf Dream Lounge. At 35 and still beautiful, she had her pick of companions.

When Alice didn’t show up for work or answer phone calls, her coworkers Merle Evans and Patsy Orr went to her apartment. They found Alice beaten to death. The investigation found people of interest, but no suspects and the case went cold.

St. Elmo detective Aaron Malone is hoping to close the Rhodes murder case before he retires. In 1975, his father collected all kinds of samples, but since DNA testing didn’t exist, they languished in the cold case boxes. When questioned, Ronan Trent gave conflicting answers, so Aaron decides to request a DNA sample.

Since Ronan had died only a few months before, Aaron visited his widow, Clara, and asked for an item with his DNA. Within weeks, he has returned to inform her that the DNA on the carpet and Ronan’s hat were a match leading him to conclude that Ronan Trent had killed Alice Rhodes.

Clara hadn’t known Ronan in 1975, but the man she knew couldn’t have killed anyone. When Clara finds an old sketch book hidden among Ronan’s things, she notes that it is labeled “The Book of Alice” and filled with intimate drawings of a beautiful woman. Now she must travel to St. Elmo to learn more about who Ronan Trent was 40 years ago.

She even manages to rent the same apartment Alice had died in. But it doesn’t take long to see that folks in St. Elmo don’t want her there. Only Aaron Malone is truly friendly.

Merle Evans refuses to speak with Clara. Alice’s daughter Vickie Ann is reluctant, but Patsy Orr arrives and is openly hostile toward Clara. Alice’s elderly father Daddy Jim insists that Coby killed Alice and wants Vickie Ann to give him his gun so he can kill the SOB.

A lot happens in a few days. Aaron’s mother passes away, Clara’s apartment is ransacked and Daddy Jim manages to get to Luton’s Landing and drowns. Clara returns to Luna Bay with more questions than answers. Suddenly it all comes together with a surprise visit.

Even after the case is well and truly solved, Vickie Ann is still convinced that Coby is setting her up with a business partnership so they can be a happy family. He’s even given her a lovely carved box as a gift — a box we know was stolen from Clara. This just might set up another Panhandle mystery book.

Life, like most novels, is full of complications and backstories to make things more interesting. Your public library can keep you interested and entertained. Just drop by soon so you can check it all out.