The Bitter Past
July 29, 2023

Book Review

The Bitter Past

Deliberate homicides are rare in Lincoln County, Nevada, so Sheriff Porter Beck and his investigators are shocked to see the mutilated body of retired FBI Agent Ralph Atterbury. Atterbury was skinned and blowtorched, his fingers bent and broken, and most of his teeth pulled out. The killer was clearly looking for something, since Atterbury’s house was ransacked, with every room tossed, huge holes in the drywall, and papers tossed all over the floor.

The next day Sheriff Beck is in his office, looking at photos of the Atterbury crime scene, when a no-nonsense FBI agent named Sana Locke strides in and announces she’s joining the Atterbury investigation. Despite the grim circumstances, Beck is struck by Sana’s beauty and spunk, and he shamelessly flirts with her as they search for the killer.

Sana reveals that Agent Atterbury was an FBI handler for a Soviet spy back in the cold war era. In the 1950s, a Russian KGB agent was sent to the United States to gather intel on the American atomic testing program. At the time, above ground tests of nuclear weapons were being conducted at the Nevada Proving Grounds, north of Las Vegas. Later on, the Russian spy – plagued by a guilty conscience – contacted the FBI and gave them information on the Soviet espionage apparatus in the United States.

Recently, Russian intelligence, who thought the KGB spy died decades ago, learned he was alive and living in Lincoln County. Thus, though the Soviet spook would be an old man by now, the SVR (formerly the KGB) came looking for him. The Russians evidently thought FBI Agent Atterbury could tell them the spy’s location, and tried to torture the information out of him, without success. The Russians aren’t giving up though, which is made clear by another killing and a kidnapping.

Sheriff Beck is well-qualified to oversee this investigation because he was in the Army for twenty years, some of it as a Foreign Area Officer assigned to Russia. Thus Beck speaks Russian and knows quite a bit about the KGB and its successors, who coordinate the training and planting of Russian spies in the United States.

The current search for the murderer alternates with scenes in the 1950s, when a young man named Freddie Meyer is working as a shill in a Las Vegas casino. There Freddie makes the acquaintance of a sweet young woman called Kitty Ellison, whose father, Dr. Roger Ellison, is a scientist at the Nevada Proving Grounds.

Freddie romances Kitty and meets Dr. Ellison, who helps Freddie get a better-paying job as a security guard at the Nevada Proving Grounds. There Freddie becomes concerned about the development of nuclear weapons. Seeing the damage caused by radiation, Freddie is appalled by the callousness of atomic scientists who poo-poo the harm done to people and animals by the above-ground nuclear tests.

It turns out the effects of radiation exposure extends over decades, causing miscarriages, birth defects, bladder cancer, thyroid cancer, leukemia, and other illnesses. In fact Sheriff Beck’s own mother was a ‘downwinder’ who died of cancer.

Going back to the 1950s, the Soviets, who are very fearful of the United States developing an atom bomb, hatch a nefarious scheme to derail the American nuclear program. The results of this plan reverberate right up to current times.

The book contains a smorgasbord of interesting characters, including Tuffy Scruggs – Beck’s best investigator, who looks more like Dick Butkus than Dick Tracey; Wardell Spann – a former police chief, who resents being Beck’s second-in-command; Jimmy and Johnny Green – identical twin deputies, nicknamed the Jolly Greens; Joe Beck – Porter’s dad, who’s suffering from mild dementia; Brinley – Beck’s sister, who knows everything about guns; Pete Alexander – a new hire who’s ex-military police; and more.

This series debut is a well-crafted police procedural combined with an espionage thriller. I look forward to the further exploits of Sheriff Beck and his crew.

Thanks to Netgalley, Bruce Borgos, and St. Martin’s Press for a copy of the book.

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