BOOK REVIEW: River Bodies by Karen Katchur

When Becca Kingsley returns to her small hometown in Pennsylvania to care for her estranged and ailing father, she has no idea that she’s about to entangle herself in complex web of family lies and years-old mystery. A successful veterinarian with a slightly complicated romantic life, Becca thinks she’s fully moved on from her painful upbringing in Portland – and from her brief romantic obsession with her childhood best friend. But upon returning home and enduring encounters with three formerly central male figures in her life, Becca realizes that she hasn’t put the past as far behind her as she would like. Things are further complicated when Becca accidentally witnesses a crime that ties back to Portland’s most notorious biker gang.  

The central mystery in River Bodies concerns two bodies that have washed up on the shore of the river running through Portland over the course of several decades. The most recent case, which unfolds just as Becca is returning to town, is eerily similar to the first, and it quickly becomes clear that Becca’s sick father, the town’s former police chief who investigated the original crime, could know more than he is letting on. To make matters worse, Becca soon learns that Parker, her first love from high school, is now a police detective tasked with catching the river body killer, and that her estranged step-brother has become involved with the suspicious biker gang. The three most influential men in her life are all intricately connected to terrible crimes, and Becca can’t quite figure out where she fits in to the whole story.

River Bodies is a short and suspenseful novel filled with quiet introspection and thrilling action. Karen Katchur, a veteran mystery author, uses the landscape of Pennsylvania to create ample atmosphere and tension, turning the small town of Portland into a vibrant character in its own right. Becca Kingsley, an intelligent, insightful and complicated woman, is exactly the kind of character you’ll want to root for. As she grapples with her fathers’ impending death, the heartache she still feels at being spurned by her childhood best friend, and the mystery surrounding her step brother, Becca grows as a character in understandable and believable ways. Some of the most compelling parts of the story take place when Becca is on her own, pondering over the strange turns her life has taken.

While the plot of River Bodies isn’t the most original or captivating, Katchur executes it well. The novel is told from points of view that alternate between Becca and her step-brother, John. It’s less of a “whodunnit” and more of a “whydunnit”, but still captures the darkness and tension of a murder mystery. At times the story suffers from simply having too much information and too many relationships squeezed into its pages, but ultimately flows well and follows a clear trajectory.

I would recommend River Bodies to readers who have enjoyed Paula Hawkin’s past novels like The Girl On The Train and Into The Water, or to fans of Ruth Ware’s books In A Dark, Dark Wood and The Woman In Cabin 10. Karen Katchurr touches on the same themes of male influence and corruption as her contemporaries, and uses them to spin a story that’s as much about love and heartache as it is about murder. River Bodies is a fun, fast and easy read. If you’re looking for something to keep you busy during a road trip or a palette-cleanser between other books, this is the perfect story for you.