Life, much like storytelling, tends to be linear: We’re born (characters); we live (plots); we conclude. But what fun could a mischievous author have by reversing that narrative? Rising star Chris Whitaker explores this possibility in We Begin at the End, an addictive flip on the small-town mystery, which begins when all is supposed to be said and done, in what would traditionally be a crime story’s aftermath.
In the California coastal village of Cape Haven, 13-year-old Duchess Day Radley is a self-proclaimed outlaw with a disheveled appearance, obscenity-rich rants and an obsession with protecting her 5-year-old brother, Robin, and their saloon-dancer single mom, Star. Thirty years ago, Star’s 7-year-old sister, Sissy, was murdered. The man who found her body, Walker, aka Walk, is now Cape Haven’s chief of police, while his best friend, Vincent King, is being released from prison after serving his sentence for Sissy’s murder, due in part to Walk’s testimony.
Just as Duchess obsesses over Robin, Walk keeps a close eye on Duchess, knowing that Vincent’s return to Cape Haven could provoke the troubled teen. When a suspicious fire destroys the dingy nightclub where her mother performs, Duchess and Robin are whisked away to the Montana home of their grandparents, who reluctantly begin the difficult task of finding a workable foster home for the displaced siblings.
Meanwhile, Vincent’s return proves troublesome for Walk, who can’t figure out a way to make things right with the best friend he put in prison. The investigation into the nightclub torching and the subsequent suspicious behavior of club owner Dickie Darke serve to reunite Walk with his long-ago girlfriend Martha May, now a family lawyer.
As surprises surface, British writer Whitaker combines a brisk pace, a solid California voice and perhaps a record-setting cuss count. By the book’s end, you’ll want to begin at the end again.