The Flies of August by P.J. Lee is a well-paced police procedural/murder mystery that centers on two shocking crimes that take place in a wealthy suburb of Hartford, CT. One is the disappearance of an academically gifted teen-age girl and the other is the murder of a powerful health insurance company CEO. The star of this complex and satisfying story is Detective Donna Bradley, the main character, who is struggling to rise through the ranks of a male-dominated profession, while looking for a lasting relationship.
While the Webster police devote maximum resources to solving the grisly murder of insurance CEO Nathan Weisz, the Chief assigns Donna to investigate the disappearance of 15-year-old Amber Zajac. Donna has a chip on her shoulder the size of a boulder. She believes the only reason the Chief chose her to lead this investigation is because everyone else was working to solve the insurance CEO murder case. The Chief teams Donna with a veteran detective named Anthony diGiorgio, who abruptly left a police department in Kentucky to start over in Connecticut.
Lee has a sharp eye for detail and a skill for character development. His precise description of an autopsy procedure is chilling and puts the reader right in the room. Donna is sharply drawn. A workaholic, she is a single woman in her early 30s who often comes home to an empty refrigerator or a pile of dirty laundry. She longs for a relationship, but until someone special comes along, she will settle for quick liaisons with guys who have an air conditioned bedroom to get through the steamy August nights.
Donna is eager to shine and show her male bosses she can handle a big case, but she stumbles along the way. The patient and supportive diGiorgio proves a big help to her. In spite of these mistakes, Donna follows her instincts as she pursues the case to its resolution.
Through Donna, Lee points out that a good detective must leave her moral judgments at the door when evaluating potential suspects in a criminal case. Police detectives are human, but they must feel no guilt when their investigations leave collateral damage, a point Lee makes adroitly.
The setting plays into the themes of the story. Webster is like many communities in America, where well-heeled suburbanites and hard-scrabbled working class people live and work side by side. Amber embodies both sides of this town as she lives in an unstable home in a lower-class neighborhood, but wins a scholarship to an elite academy in a nearby community.
I won’t spoil the ending, but ultimately Donna must make a major decision and her moral compass is her guide.