Tue 25 Aug 2015
SANDRA WEST PROWELL – By Evil Means. Walker, hardcover, 1993. Bantam, paperback, April 1995.
This is the first of three recorded adventures for perhaps the only fictional PI working out of Billings, Montana, a former FBI agent named Phoebe Siegel. The case seems simple enough, that of a woman who is afraid that there is something wrong at Whispering Pines, the psychiatric clinic on the outskirts of town where her daughter had recently sought help.
Phoebe is about to turn her down, since (for many reasons) she always takes the month of March off. One of the reasons is that March is the month that her brother Ben, a cop in the local police force, committed suicide. She changes her mind, though, when the mother tells her there may have been an involvement between the girl and her brother Ben, even to the extent of a police complaint just before he died.
Thus begins a long (over 350 pages) investigation into all kinds of secrets in her home town that Phoebe had never had an inkling of, many of them involving her family and friends, and she has many in both categories. The book is slow to start. It is not until page 130 or so, when Phoebe goes sneaks into Whispering Pines and convinces herself at last that Dr. Stroud is indeed up to no good, that the tale really starts to get into high gear.
In some ways, this book reminded me of several of Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone stories, in which the friends and family seem to be a secondary but essential sidebar to the mystery. But in Phoebe Siegel’s case, the role they both take on simply grows and grows, insidiously so. The ending is as harrowing as any that I’ve read in a PI novel in quite a long time.
I wasn’t so sure for a while, but this one’s a keeper.
The Phoebe Siegel series –
By Evil Means (1993)
The Killing of Monday Brown (1994)
When Wallflowers Die (1996)
An Accepted Sorrow (unpublished)
According to the Thrilling Detective website, By Evil Means was nominated for the Hammett Prize, and both that novel and The Killing of Monday Brown were nominated for a Shamus.