“The Rat Catcher” by Rebecca Barrett

Ruth Camden is dead in her Alabama attic. Ruth’s distinguished lineage goes all the way back to d’Iberville in old French Mobile. She died apparently with an opened scrapbook in her lap and a cup of tea near her elderly body. Detectives Hugo August and his partner Junior are called to the scene not because anyone thinks it is a murder, but because the coroner is at the homecoming football game at The University of Alabama and somebody official needed to sign off on the dead woman’s body. But the misalignment of a stack of photo albums and scrap books in an otherwise orderly setting catches Hugo’s eye. Thus begins Rebecca Barrett’s The Rat Catcher (June 2023)—an outstanding novel, part classic mystery, part historical, and part police procedural.

This is a lush, enthralling book reflecting its equally lush subtropical setting of Mobile. Rich with descriptive details, packed with complex characters, with a plot line full of twisting turns, The Rat Catcher is an exciting drama. At times gripping and gritty, the novel is set in the months after Martin Luther King was assassinated, and the author captures that time frame with authenticity and intrigue. The writing itself is smooth, descriptive, with a careful sprinkling of the lyrical and just a hint of noir in some of the phrasing and dialogue. The Rat Catcher is the first book in the Hugo August detective series.

The main protagonist is Vietnam veteran Hugo August, who returns home to Mobile after his tour of duty and his time as a San Francisco cop. Soon he becomes an investigator for the police department, where he is decidedly not the police chief’s favorite. Hugo is not quite world-weary, but he is gaining on it as reflected in his thinking: “If ‘Nam had taught him anything, it was that nowhere was safe. Everywhere was a rocket zone. It was a lesson he wouldn’t forget again. Do the time, stay alive, return home in one piece.”

At the death scene of Ruth Camden, her nephew points to the woman’s age and history of heart conditions to support his theory of a routine heart attack. The dead woman was one of the town’s most formidable and pedigreed women, described by the author as “Old name, old money, big headache.” Yes, her previously diagnosed heart condition makes her demise seem all together like a natural death. Yet Hugo’s cop radar goes off—something is not as it seems. Soon, not only must Hugo confront Ruth’s death, but he must deal with her entangled and often contentious family.

The first question facing Hugo and his partner is basic—did Ruth die of a natural heart attack as many wish to believe or was she murdered? Hints of poison soon seem to answer the question, but what kind of poison and who had motive and means remain hidden until near the climax—though there are plenty of suspects. Along the ride toward the climax, Hugo and his partner must also deal with a second murder, which they suspect is related, though they can’t initially piece together the puzzle.

Ruth’s family also includes her niece Bebe, a woman Hugo once loved and probably still does. Though not particularly close to her aunt, Bebe was one of the last people to see Ruth alive when she delivered business papers to her. When those papers disappear, Hugo understands that Bebe knows something she’s not sharing with him. The harder he pushes her to talk, the more strained and unpleasant their connection becomes. Their past relationship hovers, increasing the tension. He was the orphan from St. Moore’s Catholic Boys Home working in the university’s cafeteria, and she was the homecoming queen at UA, with her arm on the governor’s. They were never meant to last. Yet, like Hugo, she is haunted by the “what ifs” of their past. To the author’s credit, the backstory is leaked into the novel in small, enticing snippets, leaving much of it untold, and thereby letting the past haunt but not distract from the main story.

Bebe isn’t the only person from Hugo’s past that he must deal with upon his return to Mobile. Hugo must also face up to his complex bond with Junior, a childhood friend from their days in a Catholic school. As in childhood, the adult Junior seems always to be overshadowed by the strong, handsome Hugo. There are hints of a simmering resentment on Junior’s part, and yet at times they are decidedly close, like brothers. Junior’s flirtatious grandmother is an utter delight in the story.

Ruth Camden’s grandson Archie is an AWOL soldier who would have soon been on his way to Vietnam. Ruth was very close to Archie and might have been involved in a scheme to save him from Vietnam. In a testament to the author’s storytelling skills, Archie soon commands both Hugo’s attention and that of the readers, though he never actually appears in the story.

Other potential suspects and intriguing characters prowl the novel’s pages. Aimee, a neighbor who remains a foreigner to Mobile after two decades, doesn’t hide her jealousy of Ruth very well yet professes to be the dead woman’s best friend and cousin. Then there’s Viola, the loyal, long-time maid who mistrusts the police and seems determined to keep Ruth’s secrets. Tyrone, the maid’s nephew, fancies himself a Black Panther, and drives a powerful muscle car he could little afford. Ruth’s attorney is a rumpled has-been sole practitioner outwardly beneath her standards, yet also allegedly a close friend. He readily shares her will with detectives but keeps other matters to himself. Beauregard, Ruth’s beloved but ancient cat, is also missing and Hugo senses there’s more to that story than a carelessly opened door which allowed the pet to escape. Then there’s the matter of the empty safe, compounded by the fact the family members seem determined to convince Hugo and Junior the safe had always been empty.

The South Alabama setting and late Sixties time frame are authentically captured and at times give the novel a kind of noir/gothic shine. With its strong sense of place, the descriptive writing pulls readers right into the scenes.

Character driven though this historical mystery is, it is also an intricate puzzle of a mystery sure to keep readers engaged—and guessing. All in all, this is just an excellent novel, well-written, intricately plotted, and wholly compelling.

Rebecca Barrett

Rebecca Barrett writes in several genres, including historical fiction such as Road’s End, cozy mysteries, post-apocalyptic fiction (writing as Campbell O’Neal), children’s stories,  short stories of life in the South—as well as historical mysteries/police procedurals like The Rat Catcher. An avid reader all her life and a product of front porch socializing, she became a story-teller at an early age. Currently she lives in South Alabama. Visit her at https://rebeccabarrett.com/


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