At the center of author S.L. Phillips’s murder mystery PRETTY BIRD OF PREY is the haunted Harmon family. Jan Harmon can barely keep her Ivy Hills home together. Besides being a less-than-average housekeeper, Jan always seems to miss something when it comes to her precocious twins, Paison and Penelope. Then of course there is daughter Avery – dark, moody, and tormented. Convinced that a fortune teller’s prediction of her untimely demise will come to pass, Avery is a morbid girl. Worse, as the new girl in town and in school, she is the target of a select group of truly mean girls.
It is Avery who first discovers the skull in the foul bog near Cusper’s Swamp. This find triggers an avalanche of evil activity, the first of which sees Avery attacked in the woods near her home by an unknown assailant. Is this attack connected to the discovery of the skull or its it an extreme manifestation of high school bullying? Avery and her family have to find the answer in order to stay alive and maintained the last shreds of their already frayed familial bonds.
PRETTY BIRD OF PREY meets all the basic requirements of the mystery/thriller genre. At its heart it is a story of domestic turbulence. The instability of the Harmon household finds its mirror image in the odd and even frightening denizens who live on the periphery of Ivy Hills. These social rejects become unlikely allies not long after Avery and Jan begin receiving threatening emails and texts from someone murderously angry over the excavations in the old bog. While the mystery part of this novel is handled well, with many unexpected twists and turns, the interactions within the Harmon family and with others are not as well-drawn. Indeed, if there is one fatal flaw in this book it is its imbalanced structure. Far too many pages are spent on pointless character development and not enough on the main story.
S.L. Phillips’ writing is neither intrusive nor spectacular. The only irritating element is the frequent use of capitalization as a way to show anger, panic, or just loud noises. The conclusion is satisfying in that it wraps up most loose ends. However, the process of getting to this ending is full of far too many detailed diversions.
Author S.L. Phillips excels at building dread in PRETTY BIRD OF PREY, but this domestic thriller focuses far too much on the former and not enough on the latter.
~Benjamin Welton for IndieReader