Rutherford, Minn., is a small town struggling with the recession—and the budget cuts, unemployment and crime that recession brings.
This trifecta challenges the local police department, and in particular Capt. Jake Hines, taking the lead role for the ninth time in Elizabeth Gunn's latest police procedural, The Ten-Mile Trials. Unfortunately, the book is dragged down by an overly complex criminal narrative that confuses more than it compels—but as usual, the vibrant men and women at the center of Gunn's tale save the day, and the book.
The Ten-Mile Trials begins with happy news: Jake and his wife, a tough forensic analyst named Trudy, have a healthy infant son, Ben. But Jake is feeling far more crazed then confident: Committed to his work, he has to leave Ben with a sitter all day. He leaves work exhausted and then spends his drives home with his crying son, wondering whether he's an awful father.
At work, Jake's team finds a body inside a house containing a drug lab—but the surprise comes when the victim turns out to be Eastern European. Eventually, the cops come to worry that a string of burglaries in an upscale end of town—combined with drugs and the presence of an overdressed, flashy group of men roving around in fancy cars—might signal the presence of a large Eastern European gang. Jake and his squad go undercover to unravel the crimes.
Gunn always excels at character, but this time, she flags at plot; The Ten-Mile Trials is not as riveting as 2007's McCafferty's Nine or 2009's New River Blues, the most recent in the Tucson-based Sarah Burke series. (Gunn was raised in Minnesota but lives in Arizona.) First-time Gunn readers will be utterly confused by the cast of characters and their shared romances, rivalries and law-enforcement-induced injuries. Gunn resists the temptation to detail everyone's backstory, but this makes for a number of throwaway references that end up being of little use to readers, new or old.
The main problem is that Gunn seems to be rushing: 192 pages aren't enough for the bad guys to evolve into true, compelling villains. They're a nasty group, sure, but their story is low-stakes and exceedingly complicated, a deflating combination that makes them look almost irrelevant.
That said, Gunn's mainstay characters are still wildly appealing. Jake is particularly likable this time around, both as a harried cop and an anxious new dad. He's not a complex man, but he's endearing: He tries to do everything, and feels guilty when he can't, but he sets his anxiety aside when it comes time to make important decisions: "I slid out of bed, picked up Ben and a diaper, and beat it down to the kitchen, where I nuked a bottle while I changed him. As I sat down to feed him, I told myself not to get too comfortable—I was so tired I was afraid I'd fall asleep and drop him. Something about that combination—exhaustion plus determined alertness—put my brain into overdrive, and I began to have some quite interesting thoughts about the current crime wave in Rutherford." This moment is quintessential Jake: He's doing his best work when pushed to his absolute limit.
Readers will be glad to see Bo Dooley, the abrasive detective pursuing a romance with a fellow officer, and the sassy-yet-serious Winnie Nguyen, who puts on hot pants and pearls to be an undercover shopper. All of the cops take turns sharing gossip and, of course, griping about the recession, Mitch McConnell and tax-and-spend Democrats. It is this water-cooler banter—which in most other accounts might come across as unnecessary filler—that Gunn truly excels at. The minutiae of the cops' days at work are far more compelling than the mystery that threatens them. Gunn seems to have a very clear understanding not only of what cops do, but why they do what they do.
It's too bad that Gunn doesn't take as much care with the crime this time around, so all we're left to love is the inside-baseball antics of Jake's staff. Longtime readers might be just fine with this, but as a standalone book, The Ten-Mile Trials won't satisfy new readers, and isn't up to par with Gunn's more recent offerings.
Still, Gunn has had her readers hooked for so long that she'll bounce back, and as long as she has the ultimate real-guy Jake Hines at the center of her tales, readers will come along for the ups and downs.