Last year in “Think Twice,” Lisa Scottoline, the best-selling, Edgar Award-winning writer, served up a frantic, ramshackle plot that saw queen-bee lawyer Bennie Rosato buried alive in a box for the first 38 chapters. Planted there by her evil twin sister (showing up for the third time in a Scottoline novel), Bennie finally escaped, with the help of a passing wolf. Is it possible, I wondered, that the author herself possesses an evil twin who emerges intermittently from some junkyard of moribund soap-opera plots to seize control of her keyboard?
We may never learn the answer to that, but fortunately the Scottoline we love as a virtuoso of suspense, fast action and intricate plot is back in top form in “Save Me,” manipulating pulse rates and heartstrings with all the ruthlessness she showed in “Look Again” (2009). As she did in that white-knuckle thriller, she once again sets loose today’s most indomitable superhero, the protecting angel who carries all before her: a mom.
Rose McKenna is newly arrived in Philadelphia with her husband, infant son and daughter, Melly. They moved from their previous home because Melly, afflicted with a facial birthmark, was being bullied at school. While volunteering as a lunch mom to assess the situation at the new school, Rose witnesses a girl, the pretty and popular Amanda, entertaining a couple of friends by painting her cheek with grape jelly in mockery of Melly’s birthmark. Melly runs off in tears to the bathroom, and as Rose tries to reason with the girls, an explosion rips through the kitchen, filling the cafeteria with smoke and flames.
Now what? Rose is faced with a terrible choice: save the three little bullies or run off amid the fire and confusion to rescue her daughter from the bathroom. There are so many excellent twists and terrible surprises to come that it’s not giving much away to say that Rose manages to lead the three tormentors to safety and then to save her child. But arch-
bully Amanda runs back into the cafeteria and is badly injured.
Although celebrated as a hero, Rose feels guilty for having put her own child second to the others. That feeling is joined by horror and dismay when Amanda’s mother accuses her of abandoning the girl. The town turns against Rose, the press shows fangs, and everyone lawyers up. Here, as elsewhere in her work, Scottoline is exceptionally good at depicting the feral, pack mentality of public opinion and the impotence of decency and dignity before it. Rose’s compassion, reticence and self-doubt — this last the result of a secret tragedy and a failed first marriage — make her a tender morsel for ravening forces.
Finally, just when the reader is wondering if Rose will ever fight back, steel enters her spine. A chance conversation brings evidence that there was something fishy about the fire, and she means to get to the bottom of it. The novel picks up even more speed, veering off in unexpected directions to include a missing teacher, a murderous thug and a powerful politician. The plot gains sinister force by drawing on today’s preoccupations: school bullying, Good Samaritan liability, Facebook pillory and even peanut allergies. Events culminate in a spectacular conflagration, and in the midst of it all, one mighty figure towers: Mom.
Powers is a freelance reviewer in Boston.
By Lisa Scottoline
373 pp. $27.99