Friday’s Forgotten Books: Chills by Mary SanGiovanni

Chills is the first book in the Kathy Ryan series by Mary SanGiovanni, and it skips over some of the usual trappings of a debut series novel and gets right down to business. A freak snowstorm is wreaking havoc in late May. The town of Colby may be in Connecticut, but this is still far from normal weather.

And then they find the first body. There are ritualistic elements. The detectives on the case quickly realize they may need to someone with the skills and knowledge that Kathy Ryan possesses. After bodies have already started to fall and panic has set in, Ryan joins the team. She sees a direct connection to her own past; her serial killer brother was a member of the cult that seems to be responsible for what’s happening in Colby.

Soon, people can’t deny that what’s going on isn’t natural. As more and more people die, Ryan has to face her brother, who’s been in an institution since his conviction, and others who are part of the cult. Things also take a personal turn for the lead detective when his family goes missing. 

One of SanGiovanni’s strengths is her atmospheric writing. Another is her patience. She carefully sets the stage. She isn’t afraid to keep the title series character off the page for the first few chapters. And I love the fact that the characters feel fully formed. There are references to them working together before, so this story unfolds as though they’re picking up the pieces of existing relationships, rather than going through the familiar routine of sizing each other up and deciding if they can trust each other as they work together. Involving Ryan’s brother in the investigation as a source is an excellent way of revealing backstory while still advancing the plot of the current story, and it helps highlight how complex Ryan is, and why. 

SanGiovanni also avoids one of the most problematic elements of some crime novels. Her victims are well developed. We walk in their shoes, often get to know them, see them fight for their lives. They aren’t just names at crime scenes. SanGiovanni humanizes her characters and reminds us of why it’s important to fight for humanity, and although Kathy Ryan may wrestle with literal demons and personal ones, that’s part of what makes her so relatable. 

I started the Kathy Ryan series with book 4. It’s never bothered me to jump into the middle of a series. It’s fair to say that Ryan, and her investigative specialties, have worked their spell on me, as I’m now reading book 2. This is a perfect blend for fans of horror and police procedurals. SanGiovanni needs to write faster … I’m going to be out of Kathy Ryan books soon.