We readers are a funny lot. The house could be falling down around us, and if we are completely ensconced in a book, we would keep reading. When one of those books comes along, there is no greater pleasure for a reader. Well, Helpless, Zoe Chambers #12, by Annette Dashofy is certainly that book. It is as riveting a read as I’ve had in some time. Dashofy is a master plotter, with different points of focus that all work together in creating the urgency of action from beginning to end. There is not a scene in this book that isn’t on the edge of the difference between disaster and success. The pace is in sync with the rushing flood waters and the ticking of the clock. Time is no one’s friend in this story, and helpless is an all-pervasive feeling in the face of the disasters of nature and of man.
It's a horrifying scene that a neighboring farmer arrives at when going to his friend’s house to fill sandbags for an approaching major storm to western Pennsylvania. Michelle O’Donnell lies dead on her kitchen floor and her husband Danny O’Donnell has been shot and pinned beneath a tractor. Their seven-year-old daughter Peyton is nowhere to be found. As law enforcement, including Vance Township Police Chief Pete Adams and his wife, Corner Zoe Chambers arrive on the scene, it’s also discovered that Danny had been working on the tractor, replacing a tire. The perpetrator drove the tractor onto Danny as he lay wounded and then sabotaged the tractor so it couldn’t be driven off the dying man. Unbelievably, Danny is still alive, and he’s able to tell them what happened, and that Peyton has been kidnapped.
Pete and County Detective Wayne Baronick once again join forces and are now tasked with finding a cold-blooded killer, a sadistic monster, before the child can also come to harm. But, this killer is cunning and already has a head-start that doesn’t bode well for the authorities, and no one knows his identity. The severe weather from Hurricane Iona in New Orleans is a double-edged sword. While it prevents the killer from leaving the area, it also makes conditions near impossible for law enforcement chasing him. People who live in low-lying areas of Monongahela County are frantically trying to sandbag their houses and businesses and farms to keep flood waters out. Roadways are filling with water, creating conditions for cars to be swept away, and, trees are toppling onto roadways making the roads impassable. But, Pete and his deputies and Baronick won’t let the conditions surrounding them keep them from a full-out pursuit of a child in danger and her unstable kidnapper. Amber alerts are issued, with a vehicle description finally being put together, but the alert is only as good as the information is current, and when the perpetrator starts to switch vehicles, the new vehicle must be determined before adding to the alert. It’s a game of cat-and-mouse that couldn’t have occurred under worse conditions. And, the clock keeps ticking.
Ordinarily, Zoe would head to the morgue where she would do the autopsy on Michelle, but Danny has asked her to stay with him, and that’s where she knows she has to be. Danny is the blacksmith for her horses and a friend as well, so her presence has a calming effect on him. A tent-like structure is set up over Danny and the rescue workers while the storm rages around them and rain pounds the canvas above their heads. Zoe’s former EMT partners are working tirelessly to try and keep Danny alive. Dr. Fuller arrives to help, which is outside of his usual duties, proving just how much everyone is invested in saving what’s left of this family. Danny’s friend Leroy, desperate to help, is sent after supplies to fix the tractor so they can drive it off Danny. Danny is fully coherent, and ironically, the pressure of the tractor is keeping him from bleeding out. And, the clock keeps ticking.
With Helpless, Annette Dashofy has taken the Zoe Chambers series deeper into the chilling waters of suspense than ever before. She has set a frenetic, but controlled, pace of action, with intertwining plotlines that must all be resolved in less than 24 hours. Tick tock, tick tock. You will feel that clock ticking the time by with lives on the line. The storm will seem to grasp you in its relentlessness and fury, too. Dashofy takes all the moving parts and brings them together in perfect symphonic blending. Helpless is, of course, already on my Favorites List for 2023, and I’m positive that it will be on many others’ favorites list, too. I know I’ve said this before, and it doesn’t take anything away from the books I said it about, but I do think this is the finest writing Annette Dashofy has produced. The author stated in a recent interview that writing this book was a daunting experience because “writing suspense is way out of my wheelhouse.” Well, Ms. Dashofy, I think you’re going to have to redefine your wheelhouse now.
I received an e-copy of Helpless from the author and from NetGalley. My review reflects my honest assessment of this book.