Pages & Paws

Writing, Reading, and Rural Life With a Border Collie

Shelf Awareness & ‘The Last Woman in the Forest’

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The Last Woman in the Forest

Penguin Random House, 2019

By Diane Les Becquets

I almost gave up on this book. It seemed to take forever to get rolling. But once it did, it picked up speed fast. Like a locomotive on the dTheownhill.

The hair-rising Prologue starts with murder “Victim #1.” There are four victims in all. Four young women. All with an independent streak. All with trusting natures. All dead in or near the Stillwater Forest, apparently by the same psycho serial killer.

The Plot

Young “conservation gypsy” Marian Engstrom works with rescue dogs in an effort to protect endangered or threatened wildlife. Her work takes her to the wilds of Utah, Alaska, Montana, Idaho and Washington. Marian’s first assignment is in Alberta, Canada. While there she meets her mentor and main squeeze, Tate Mathias.

Independent and trusting, Marian is a perfect fit for victim #5. She just doesn’t know it. Yet.

Tate is the love of Marian’s life. But every once in awhile she wonders…

Marian starts putting some of the Tate puzzle pieces together around page 202. It ain’t a pretty picture. She reaches out to a forensic profiler, Nick. He’s terminally ill and retired. But “the one that got away” – the Stillwater murderer who was never apprehended – eats at him. So Nick agrees to help Marian try to make sense of Tate puzzle pieces that get weirder and weirder.

Like that text message Marian gets from Tate on page 228: “I guess the thrill is gone.” Clue, sister! C-L-U-E!

Intrigue abounds.

What’s Up With…?

Like, what’s up with Ryan the Reporter from Montana? And crew leader Jenness Cattet? Why is she hiding a Glock in her knitting basket? Why has she taken a zillion photos of Tate and Marian? What’s up with the blue file folder duct-taped under her desk? And the photo of Jenness with one of the Stillwater murder victims?

Maybe the only thing creepier than Jenness is Marian Engstrom’s uber creepazoid mentor, Tate Mathias. Cue Twilight Zone theme in 3, 2, 1…

You get the sense early on that there’s something off with this dude. Oh, sure. He’s tall and handsome. Charming. Affable. An apparent Prince Charming too good to be true.

Spoiler Alert!

And you’d be exactly right on that last part. Turns out – spoiler alert, sort of – Tate gets killed by a grizzly bear while on assignment in the middle of Northern Nowheresville, Idaho.

Or does he?

Is Last Woman a bit over-written in places? Well, do we really need to know exactly how Marian slides her arms through the shoulder straps of her pack and fastens her hip belt? Or a blow by blow description of every item of camping gear in her backcountry pack, including the dehydrated meals she’s carrying?

Is a bear coming out of hibernation hungry?

Worth the Time

Even with the occasional huh?, The Last Woman in the Forest is a taut, well-written whodunit.

Interactions with the dogs – Deacon, Ranger, Yeti, Arkansas & Co. – are crisp and ebullient, adding texture and authenticity to this finely layered murder mystery/ode to the Great Outdoors. Ditto Becquet’s rich description of Northwest flora and fauna. I may not add it to my book shelf permanently. But it’s worth the time.

Central Theme

If you can keep the semi-connected series of events straight and follow the back-and-forth timelines between Marian and past murder victims, the book’s central theme comes through loud and clear:

Ladies! Be self aware. Pay attention to your surroundings. Trust your gut! Don’t second guess your intuition. And if it feels wrong, run! Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. Hightail it outta that relationship like your hair is on fire. It could save your life.


For more on our rating system, click here.

How long do you give a new book before deciding whether to keep reading or move on? What book started slowly but surprised you in the end?

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