In The Fifth Petal, author Brunonia Barry’s follow-up to the supernatural suspense The Lace Reader (2006), she returns to Salem, Massachusetts, where the police chief, John Rafferty, is tackling the mysterious death of a teenage boy killed on Halloween night. People suspect Rose Whelan, a former historian thought to have also killed three women in a 1989 case called The Goddess Murders. The women involved, including Rose, are descendants of people executed during the Salem witch trials of 1692-93. Many townspeople believe Rose is a witch and a killer, but just what are the truths between the deaths, and between the town’s long-ago past and the present?
The Fifth Petal is told through the perspectives of Chief Rafferty and Callie Cahill, a survivor of The Goddess Murders and the daughter of one of the victims. The two find themselves working together to uncover the town’s secrets and a killer in this thoughtful take on how injustice centuries ago can still affect people today. Many characters in the novel are descendants of those who participated in the Salem witch trials, leading some to feel anger, resentment, or guilt about an event they had no direct part in or control over. Barry also draws strong parallels between the mass hysteria of 1692 and the murder investigations Rafferty and Callie are involved with. Rafferty is under heat from townspeople who want him to crack the case quickly. As during the witch trials, people in the novel are so angry and scared they are willing to use violence before knowing the facts, a matter that further complicates Rafferty’s investigation.
The Fifth Petal is absorbing from the very first page. It is an intense, emotional, and deeply suspenseful story about relationships, prejudices, and the best and worst of human nature in the face of fear. Many of the characters in The Fifth Petal will be familiar to fans of The Lace Reader, and though it helps to have read the first book, The Fifth Petal stands just fine on its own.