As life seemingly reaches its closing chapter for Joseph Vaughn, he begins to relate his life story and waits for judgment on who he is and what he has done. It begins in Georgia, near the Okefenokee River, in July of 1939, when 12-year-old Joseph sees a slender white feather drift from the hallway into his room. He believes it's a sign that an angel had come to visit; later that day, Death comes for his father. In November, Death comes again, when a dead girl is found naked in a field, and continues to haunt Joseph for the next decade as 10 girls are murdered.
Fear and paranoia over the killings are fueled in the rural community by the ruptures of wartime. After the fourth victim is found, with still no clues, Joseph pulls together five other boys, who become the Guardians, pledged to protect the girls in the area. But they can't, and he carries the weight of the girls' ghosts, thinking he should have stopped the killings. He worries that he still has to do something so the girls can become angels. By the '60s, he finds out about more victims, murdered over a period of three decades, waiting for their wings, "waiting for me to find their killer and release them."
Ellory's writing is passionate, elegant. His descriptions of people are haunting. Reilly Hawkins, a neighboring farmer, has eyes "going this way and that as if forever searching out something that held a purpose to evade him . . . eyes washed clear and clean by tears for fallen friends." Elena Kruger, a schoolmate, "was like bitter-tasting medicine for an illness long gone." He is a master of tension and dread:
"Though we felt fear then. All of us believed at least that that was what we were feeling. In truth, we had seen nothing yet. In truth, we had no idea how bad it was to become. The real fear came with the fifth girl. That's when it came. Came just like Death along the High Road. Like the mailman, like the windmill-pump salesman, like anyone else walking into Augusta Falls with wares to sell . . .
"[The real fear] moved right in like there'd been an invitation to visit family. Times were it seemed that Death had come to collect all of us, every single sorry one. And had merely started with the children because the children didn't have the mind to fight back.
"The fifth girl was the one who sat beside me in Miss Alexandra Webber's class, so close that I knew how she drew the number five backwards. Hell, she sat so close I knew how she smelled.
"I found her Monday, August third, 1942.
"Or, to be precise, I found most of her."
The mystery is compelling; just as insistent is the pull of Ellory's prose, with a deceptively leisurely pace that heightens the suspense. As Sherriff Haynes Dearing says to Joseph, "Sometimes I like to make a journey of what I'm saying so it feels more like a destination when I get there." R. J. Ellory has crafted a dazzling journey.--Marilyn Dahl