In another life, I had the experience of working with survivors of one of the most heinous hate crimes in the twentieth century, the Holocaust, one day and a former Neo-Nazi skinhead the next. I learned a lot about what it meant to live as a target of hate, and received insight into the mind of a hater. From the extremist, I studied the strategies used by hate groups to recruit. I was familiar with the signs and symbols used by extremists. The survivor taught me about fear, but also about fortitude, compassion, and forgiveness. I had a world-class education on the topic. I give you this background because it is the context of Toni Anderson’s latest Cold Justice book, COLD MALICE.
Tess Fallon escapes her extremist upbringing on her father’s Pioneers compound. David Hines is the leader of an anti-government, white nationalist group. Tess is exposed daily to diatribes about the illegitimate government. She is taught that they are out to “steal her daddy’s hard-earned money, tax their land and take away their guns.” She is also taught that non-whites will kill her without compunction if she tries to leave the territory. Fortunately for Tess, she is more likely to ask questions and think on her own, rather than be indoctrinated by the cult.
During the organization’s last days, they are joined by a new member, Kenny Travers. Kenny Travers is an undercover officer on one of his first assignments. Seeing how the men in the compound treat and abuse the girls, Kenny tries to protect Tess from her brother’s sexual advances. He tries also to give Tess a heads up when law enforcement comes in for the arrest. Then Kenny Travers disappears.
Kenny Travers reappears in the story years later as ASAC (Assistant Special Agent in Charge) Steve (Mac) McKenzie. He is starting a new position at FBI Headquarters when there is a series of hate crimes against prominent members of society including a black judge, a transgender radio personality, and a gay politician. The murders seem to follow the manifesto written by David Hines years earlier. During the course of the investigation, Mac has to reconnect with Tess to see if she is any way involved with the murders.
After a bloody shootout at the Pioneer compound, Tess and her brother are put into foster care. Since that day, Tess is running from her past. She changes her name and tries to remain as anonymous as she can. She is terrified that if anyone finds out about her family, they will judge her based on her family’s beliefs. As it turns out, her fears are realized when Agent McKenzie enters back into her world.
Toni Anderson delivers a taut suspense thriller with multiple storylines. In addition to the crimes, she brings into the narrative a relationship between Tess and her brother, Cole, and Mac’s ex-wife, Heather. The parts and pieces are expertly woven together, merging into a very exciting climax. I also find Ms. Anderson’s research impeccable. She nails it. She includes little details that give us a peek into the mindset of the extremists. For example, she refers to the number fourteen when speaking about a tattoo given to Tess as a child. The number fourteen refers to the fourteen words of a popular a white supremacist slogan, “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” She emphasizes the anti-government nature of these extremist groups. They not only hate. They want to overthrow, what they perceive, an illegitimate government.
Whereas the mystery and suspense are spot on, the relationship between the two main characters feels less so. There is an uneven power dynamic at play. Even though Tess is ruled out as a suspect in the murders (still, bias from law enforcement against her past continues to question her innocence), she could potentially still be a witness. The more Mac involves Tess in the investigation, the more she is under scrutiny. Her continued involvement puts her well-ordered life at risk and he holds all the cards to her future. Furthermore, Mac is characterized as an ambitious agent. His mantra is to be a SAC in charge of a field office by forty. His ambition and attraction make him reckless with her reputation and life. And yet, Mac may be the most “real” of all of Ms. Anderson’s heroes. His relationship with his ex-wife is contentious. He is still angry about her having an affair. This is probably more true-to-life than not. However, if we put his selfishness, reckless ambition, and continuing anger together, it is difficult to imagine why Tess would want to risk a relationship. I admit I tend to heroify the main characters in romantic suspense books, and I want Mac to be more vulnerable. What I really want from Mac is a good grovel on bended knee.
Lack of grovel aside, this is a first-rate mystery suspense that will keep readers turning the pages and stuffing their mouths with popcorn (or maybe that is just my stress-eating).
Hugs,Tags: 4 stars, extremist groups, FBI, romantic suspense, Sunny, suspense