What do we talk about when we talk about honor and disgrace? Are these concrete, black-and-white ideas that reflect a general agreement throughout society, or are they malleable, changing ideas, open to interpretation and discussion? Can one person's honor be another person's disgrace? These are intricate and complex questions that one does not expect to contemplate while reading a direct-to-paperback mystery novel, but Gwen Florio's latest, “Disgraced,” brings these questions to the forefront, and more.
An established author and journalist in Missoula, Florio's name has been tossed about due to many topics. She is, perhaps, most well known in Missoula for her journalistic work in the Missoulian, often reporting on contentious issues that raise a significant number of hackles around town. Multiple regional bookstores that are hosting her readings have received letters threatening protests against her mere appearance. But Florio does not seem to have cowered under the public gaze. She has, instead, continued to tackle these major issues in her fiction as well as nonfiction works.
“Disgraced,” Florio's third novel, continues the story of Lola Wicks, a small-town journalist working in the fictional town of Magpie, Montana. Lola, also the lead character in Florio's earlier novels, “Montana” and “Dakota,” is a workaholic who is forced into taking a furlough from writing due to her paper's budget cuts.
We meet up with Lola and her precocious daughter, Maggie, en route to a Wyoming vacation where they are detoured to greet a friend of a friend who is coming home from a tour in Afghanistan. Lola soon gets involved in a story when one homecoming soldier commits suicide at the reception, two others beat a man to the edge of his life, and the female soldier she was asked to meet is drowning some kind of secret from the war in alcohol and silence.
All of these incidents combine to show that the company returning to Casper is not suffering from typical post-traumatic stress disorder. These soldiers have experienced something more than the expected atrocities of war, and being the veteran workaholic journalist she is, Lola sets herself on a course to find out the truth. In do so, she places herself, her daughter, and anyone who helps her in the path of serious, life threatening danger.
Sometimes, it is the adrenaline and the action that carries us through a good mystery novel. “Disgraced” certainly is not lacking in this aspect, although I easily anticipated some of the twists and turns throughout the story. Florio definitely creates strong tension, an uncertainty of characters, and of how events may, or may not have, actually unfolded. Yet, it is the issues and ideas that she explores that got me invested in this novel. One should note that “Disgraced” does not read as an espousal of complex thoughts and ideas. It is a story, a mystery, and an entertaining read, at that. Within the story, lies the meat of it all. Florio does not beg you to think about the issues she brings to the table, but simply presents them, realistically and somewhat subtly, asking the reader to please consider serious issues both within the story and without.
“Disgraced” fits nicely among her previous novels while also working well independently. With three novels now under her belt, Florio has begun to carve a niche for herself within the mystery genre. “Disgraced” does not disappoint, and we can only hope that she continues to write and build upon the fairly solid foundation she now has under her feet.
Mara Panich-Crouch is a bookseller at Fact and Fiction Books in Missoula. She received her bachelor's in English literature and creative writing from Purdue University and found her home in Missoula in 2002 while pursuing post-graduate studies at the University of Montana. She loves giving (and receiving) book recommendations of all genres. She is an avid painter, thrift-shopper and adventurer.