When Death Draws Near. An underemployed forensic artist, she's been commissioned to travel from her home in Montana to Pikeville, Kentucky to help draw a suspect in a series of vicious rapes. At the same time, a recent bout of cancer has left her broke, and her ex-husband is threatening to sue her for full custody of their 15 year old daughter, Aynslee. So when Gwen attempts to interview a victim who is recovering in the hospital, she's hoping to be able to do the sketch and get back to her life as soon as possible.
The hospitalized victim, Shelby Lee, refuses to say anything, so Gwen resolves to return later, and this time not be accompanied by the local Sheriff, Clay Reed, who doesn't seem too thrilled to have Gwen in town anyway. Gwen isn't able to follow through, because she soon learns that Shelby Lee has checked herself out of the hospital and disappeared -- just like several previous victims. When the young clerk of the hotel where Gwen is staying disappears in the middle of her shift, Gwen is terrified that the "Hillbilly Rapist" has struck again.
Not only is Sheriff Reed unhappy with Gwen's presence in town . . . it seems that someone else is, too. Walking home from dinner one night Gwen is nearly run down, and later she finds a rattle snake in her bed. Due to various events in town (who knew Pikeville was such a happenin' place?), there are no other hotel options for Gwen. Luckily, Sheriff Reed tells her that the people who wanted to bring her in on the case from the beginning, Blanche and Arless Campbell, have insisted that she come and stay with them. The Campbells are wealthy and influential. Arless Campbell is a state senator with higher political aspirations. Blanche is doing all she can to improve the image of eastern Kentucky. Between them, they want all suggestion of crime, poverty or general "backwardness" removed from Pikeville.
All of this ties in with a second issue that Gwen becomes involved with: the practice of snake handling during religious services. Since she's in town, Gwen is asked to do a facial recreation sketch for an unidentified body that has been found in the woods, apparently killed by a snake bite. Gwen does such a good job that the young man's parents gratefully ask her to attend his funeral. Once Gwen's new hosts, the Campbells, hear this, they ask her to attend and come back and draw sketches of the people who attend the funeral. Since Senator Campbell has gotten a law passed in Kentucky forbidding the practice of snake handling, he wants the members of this particular church exposed so that he can enforce the law and hopefully stamp out the practice for good. Gwen (and eventually her daughter, Aynslee, who comes to stay with her) both face danger as they are unsure if they can trust anyone or if the snake handling church is looking to silence its critics.
I appreciate that the author was trying to demonstrate that, even if their practices seem strange to outsiders, the free practice of religion (by consenting adults) is one of the foundations of this country. I didn't like the fact that it appeared the author had done some research for this book, and by golly, she was going to make sure to impart that to the reader. For instance, when she attends a service at the snake handling church, an African-American woman makes sure to come up to Gwen and let her know that the Pentacostal movement was started in Los Angeles in the African-American community. Job done, that character wanders off and is never mentioned again. Another strange thing is near the beginning of the book when Gwen and Sheriff Reed seem to play "serial killer Jeopardy" with each other (one giving characteristics and the other providing the name of a particular serial killer). Very odd, especially since they don't seem to like each other and don't really get along otherwise. You'd think bonding over serial killer talk would allow them to warm to one another, but not in this case!
Disclaimer: I received a copy of When Death Draws Near from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review
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