THE LAST BREATH is an impressive debut novel set in the hills of Appalachia in Eastern Tennessee. In the novel’s opening pages, the year is 1994 and we meet Ella Mae Andrews shortly before she is brutally murdered during what she calls a “crime of passion.” The consequences to others, as well as the inherent mystery surrounding Ella Mae’s murder, make up the heart of this fast-paced, page turning novel.
As THE LAST BREATH moves forward, it is 16 years after Ella Mae’s murder and it would seem justice has been served as her husband Ray is in prison for her murder. In an interesting twist of fate, however, Ray (who has pancreatic cancer) is being released from prison and returning home to die. As he will need around the clock care, his daughter, Gia, reluctantly agrees to come home to help care for him. She has been traveling the world as an international disaster relief expert for the past 16 years, ever since the people in their small town turned their backs on her family after her father’s conviction. When she arrives, she is greeted by her Uncle Cal, otherwise known as the Tennessee Tiger, one of the best defense lawyers (and her father’s trial attorney) in the state. Gia has always believed her uncle did a stellar job defending her father, but as the evidence against him piled up, there was only so much Cal could do; she knew her father was indeed guilty.
This steadfast belief in her father’s guilt is soon shaken, however, when Jeffrey Levine stops by her house. You see, Jeffrey is a law professor who is writing a true crime book about false convictions and believes he has found some evidence indicating that her father may have been unjustly convicted. Not only that, he suspects that Uncle Cal provided (at best) a “shoddy” defense. The question is —- why would he do that? It is at this point that Belle starts us on the roller coaster ride that makes up the remainder of the book. Along with Gia, we start to doubt Ray’s guilt and ask ourselves the question: if Ray didn’t kill Ella Mae, then who did?
The narrative moves along quickly by alternating Gia’s voice in the present with Ella Mae’s from the past. By doing this, Belle gives us glimpses into what was really going on in Ella Mae’s life leading up to her murder. We also get to know a few colorful people in Gia’s life. There’s her spunky sister Lexi, who remains somewhat bitter about Gia’s “abandoning” her 16 years ago. Then there’s Jake, a gorgeous bartender who takes a strong interest in Gia (and vice versa). Finally, there’s Frannie, the hospice nurse in charge of Ray’s care and quite possibly my favorite character of all.
If you like ‘whodunits’ give this a try. There were times when I was convinced Ray was guilty, then Belle would throw another potential suspect in the mix and I thought for sure he was innocent. That being said, the plot of THE LAST BREATH is extremely ambitious, and was a lot of fun to read even though it occasionally jumped the track a time or two through the course of the narrative. Gia and Jake didn’t always react to events as I would’ve expected which was often confusing and made them somewhat less believable. That’s a minor critique though, as I really enjoyed this debut.