Wasting no words in the opening pages, Piper directs the reader to a central element of the story: Payton Montgomery suffers recurring nightmares. We are quickly acquainted with Payton’s current life: her manager job at a local New Orleans bookstore, her penchant for “the wrong man,” her relationships with family and friends, and her determination to move forward. And it is this determination that wraps us back around to her recurring nightmares and her search for answers. Payton is not so much afraid of these nightmares and visions – although they definitely frighten her – but rather she pursues their cause. She wants to know why they happen, what they mean and it is Payton’s search for the source of these visions that compels the novel forward.
Like the other female characters we meet, Payton is not overly complicated nor is she two-dimensional. Instead she is engaging and unshakeable. With the return of Mathilda Dupre, a character I am familiar with from Piper’s short stories, there is an added twist of intrigue. Mathilda “knows” things, she senses the world around her in ways most of us do not, and thus – like a sixth-sense detective – she knows when something, or someone, is not quite “right.” Mathilda’s presence in Beneath the Shady Tree does not overshadow Payton’s story or the larger mystery at play, which could have happened given Mathilda’s larger-than-life personality, but instead Mathilda acts as a steady hand just when Payton, and the novel, needs it.
Two additional story lines run concurrently with Payton’s search: two separate child abductions and the haunting past of veterinarian Joel McIntyre who returns to his childhood home after a marital separation. Piper artfully weaves these subplots into the novel and teases us with just enough detail of each character’s story so we are carried along for the ride. Whether it is Payton’s brother Sterling’s questionable relationship with one of the abducted child’s mothers or Payton’s own vague memories of the barn behind Joel McIntyre’s family home, the details, events, and flashbacks of the story lines invite the reader into the novel.
As these stories collide in a thrilling ending, like a good Sue Grafton mystery, the ties that bind these story lines and these characters together are revealed — case closed.