Joe Talbert is back. And now there are two of them.
Readers have waited four years to learn what might come next for Joe, the protagonist of Twin Cities author Allen Eskens’ award-winning “The Life We Bury.” The sequel, “The Shadows We Hide,” completes a one-two gut punch that was well worth the wait.
In the first book, Joe was a struggling college student who stumbled into a murder case quite by accident. For a writing assignment, he had to interview a stranger. Joe didn’t pick just anybody — he chose a man convicted of a girl’s murder decades earlier who was now living out his last months in a nursing home. Joe dove deep into the man’s background and found a Vietnam War hero who seemed incapable of the brutal crime for which he was convicted.
Joe set out to prove the man’s innocence and found himself in the center of a dangerous cold case. Eskens’ taut tale won several awards and left readers wanting more.
Now, in “The Shadows We Hide,” it’s six years later. Joe is a Minneapolis journalist with the Associated Press, living on a shoestring with his law-student girlfriend, Lila, and autistic brother, Jeremy, in a cramped St. Paul apartment. He has custody of Jeremy because his addict mother cared more about getting high than caring for the boy.
Joe’s boss calls him into the office to share some news — a man with his name, Joe Talbert, has been found dead in a southern Minnesota barn. Although Joe never knew his father, a ne’er-do-well who abandoned his pregnant mother, he decides to check out the story to see if this is his father and learn what he can about his roots.
His adventures take him to a town where people practically spit when they say his father’s name. But the older Talbert had big money, through an obscene inheritance, and Joe is in line to receive it once his dad’s murder is solved.
Joe, naturally, becomes a suspect in the killing as he looks for trouble in all the usual places. He gets entangled with law enforcement and questionable people who all have their own take on his father’s deplorable dealings. But Joe is determined to find the killer and unravel the motive — which is made all the more challenging because the whole town seems to have wanted the man dead.
Add Joe’s brush with infidelity to Lila, complications with the good-natured brother and their recovering-addict mother, an unscrupulous uncle who’s after the inheritance, and a possible younger sister entering the picture, and you’ve got your pulsating plot.
Eskens is a descriptive writer who laces his stories with Minnesota location and lore. He twists his plots like a State Fair pretzel and makes us give even sketchy people the benefit of the doubt, leaving the conclusion wide open until he decides to deliver the final tug. “The Shadows We Hide” is a rewarding sequel.
Ginny Greene is a Star Tribune copy editor.