C. A. Asbrey and Marriage in the Wild West
In nature it’s not uncommon to observe animals who kill their mating partners after the deed is done, including fish, rodents, and most famously, the black widow spider. Thankfully though, this is one aspect of life which hasn’t translated into human society, at least for the most part. The idea of someone who marries people just to kill them off has entered our collective imagination fuelled by some tragically-true cases, becoming a horror concept reproduced in various mediums, including books, movies and whatnot. Perhaps the most well-known tale is that of Bluebeard, a man who married one woman after another to murder them… it was so well-known in fact, the term Bluebeard earned its own place in the dictionary. The concept is still very much alive in literature today, as can be seen in C. A. Asbrey’s Innocent Bystander, the third book in The Innocents Mystery series.
Once again the story follows the Pinkerton detective agent Abigail Mackay as she takes on a case out of personal interest. Her younger sister, Madeleine, has married a widower whose wives keep mysteriously passing away, and though nobody has been able to prove it, Abigail is convinced he is, in fact, a real-life Bluebeard. What’s worse, her sister has now disappeared, potentially even unaware of the danger she might be in. With little recourse available to her, Abigail turns to her old outlaw friends Jake and Nat, who also happen to be the last people who have seen Madeleine alive during one of their train robberies. Coming to certain understandings with the two outlaws, Abigail and Nat set out to prove Madeleine’s husband, David Bartholomew, is indeed a cunning murderer, while Jake reaches deep into his bag of tricks the protect the young woman from the danger lurking over her.
The Western Serial Killer
With this being the third book in the series, there is little room or necessity to set the stage or the characters, but nevertheless C.A. Asbrey does take a bit of time to do so to refresh our memories and welcome new readers to the series. It really doesn’t take long for the story to begin unfolding and for the main intrigue to find its way onto the centre stage. As a murder mystery book, it takes the slightly different but time-tested approach of revealing the killer to us, with the pleasure and intrigue coming from the chase after him, very much in the spirit of Columbo. While personally I find this particular approach to be a bit less exciting than shrouding the murderer’s identity, I also find it has its own advantages to speak of, namely the ability to extrapolate and focus on the process of apprehending the criminal. Additionally, it also gives us a bit of variety in regards to other serial killer novels in terms of the actual mystery we need to unravel; it’s not about “who”, but “how”.
The plot moves along at a pretty rapid pace, and I have to say I was impressed with all the different elements the author managed to integrate to keep the mystery feeling fresh from one chapter to the next. We are constantly encouraged to do our own thinking in parallel with Abigail, and by the end of it I felt as if I had done as much work as her, mentally-speaking at least. Our villain in question was definitely crafted with a lot of care, his evil largely implied by his reputation at first, until we start digging deeper into his life. In the previous books of the series, it always felt as if Abigail was one or two steps ahead of her enemies, at least in intellectual terms. In this book, for the first time I felt Abigail was matched equally with her opponent, which added a good amount of tension and helped pique my overall interest in the story.
A Multilayered Ride
The mystery of how Bartholomew kills his wives does remain at the forefront of the plot from start to finish, but Asbrey always finds a few moments here and there to include additional elements into the book. For starters, we have the relationship between between Abigail and Nat, ever-complex and uncertain in its foundations, further complicated by the reveal of the former actually being married. There is also the law enforcement-outlaw relationship the three have going on together, complete with its own intricacies and endearing moments of comedic relief. We don’t dwell too much on them as people, but they all benefit from some sort of character development.
In addition to the people themselves, old forensic science is also put on a glorious display, as has been the case for each of the books throughout the series. You would think the author would soon run out of old methods, concepts and experiments to discuss and portray in her pages… after all, how many of them could have existed in the science’s infancy? However, I’m surprised and happily relieved to see it wasn’t at all the case; Asbrey always has some new and interesting information to share on the topic, and I’m certain this will remain true for the books to come in the future. The research she does on the topic is second-to-none and simply oozes with her passion for it, which can be a very infectious affair.
The Final Verdict
Innocent Bystander by C. A. Asbrey is certainly a worthy sequel to the previous novels in the series, providing yet another compelling murder mystery western with some elements of romance and a plot slightly different from what we are used to. Whether you were already a fan of the series or have just learned about it, I recommend this book if you even remotely enjoy this sort of genre.
C. A. Asbrey is an author of mystery books with a passionate interest for early forensic and detection methods. She spent many years conducting research for her first novel, The Innocents , which kicked off The Innocents Mystery Series giving way to two more books so far, Innocent as Sin and Innocent Bystander.