Everyone loves a legend—until it ends in murder.
“Don’t stare too long at the Witching Tree / Defile it not, or cursed you will be.” So goes the saying behind the spookiest landmark in Burning Lake, New York, a small town with a dark past and an even darker present. Alice Blanchard’s The Witching Tree follows detective and lifelong Burning Lake resident Natalie Lockhart through a murder mystery that deftly addresses what happens when personal trauma and professional responsibility collide in a town steeped in complicated history.
The third book in Blanchard’s award-winning series begins with a horrific awakening. Beloved local Wiccan priestess Veronica Manes awakens from a drugged sleep, dressed in a Halloween-esque witch costume and chained to a railroad track with a freight train quickly approaching—a train she is unable to escape in time. At the same time, Natalie is enjoying a cozy morning with her wealthy boyfriend, Hunter Rose. She’s ready to leave cop life behind after working two disturbing cases, including one that involved her own family. When Natalie learns of Veronica’s murder, she’s as baffled as the rest of Burning Lake, but she knows she can’t quit the force until the mystery is solved.
Natalie is a smart, believable heroine. She’s a skilled detective with an admirable sense of duty to the place that has raised her, even though it spectacularly failed her family. Indeed, Blanchard’s writing shines the brightest when depicting all her characters’ gray areas. Despite the macabre elements of the murder and setting, the people who populate The Witching Tree are realistically drawn: No townsperson is all good or all bad. Could eccentric Marigold Hutchins, who runs the town’s Wiccan shop, be gunning for Veronica’s leadership position in the local historic coven? What about the young couple Veronica befriended, who were dealing with drug addiction and dabbling in dark magic before they disappeared completely? Natalie also can’t forget the legacy of the town, whose the citizens burned three accused witches at the stake in the 18th century. Blanchard crafts a spectacular sense of place, and though readers may fear Burning Lake, they also won’t want to leave.
While it’s the third in a series, The Witching Tree offers sufficient background information for new readers and a town full of complex, dynamic characters, making it an enjoyable novel that stands easily on its own.