“The Stills” by Jess Montgomery continues the story of Sheriff Lily Ross, whom we first meet in “The Widows” and again in its sequel, “The Hollows.” Lily’s husband was the sheriff in Bronwyn County, Ohio, and after his murder, Lily is offered the opportunity to finish his term. She not only does that, she runs again for sheriff and is elected.
In this third novel, Prohibition is in full swing, and we realize that the US government was just as incompetent in some ways almost a century ago as it is now. To stop people from drinking alcohol used in industry, the government had it doctored with wood alcohol, or methyl alcohol, to make it not only unpalatable, but deadly. Lily and her husband have a history with George Vogel, a lawyer-turned-criminal, who is married to Fiona, a woman from the area. George is wealthy, but as is the case with many wealthy “businessmen,” he is never satisfied and is unscrupulous in how he plans to increase his alcohol-based empire. He doesn’t care whom he has to hurt or kill along the way.
We have come to know Lily and her mother, her two children, her friends and the relatives of her late husband, Elias and Luther, both of whom have shown their true colors in the previous books. This book is a combination of mystery and thriller, as we must wonder what happened to the Prohibition agent who was shot in the Prologue and then disappears.
While we root for Lily to figure out Vogel’s despicable plan for the farm that he purchases from his wife’s aunt through trickery and threats, we witness life in rural Ohio and the desperation that poverty can bring to families. And while in Vogel and his associates Montgomery shows us the worst of human behavior, she also emphasizes that people are not good or bad, black or white. There are shades of gray in us all, even those of us who might seem to be beyond redemption.
We also get to see Lily’s relationship develop with Benjamin, a friend of her husband’s who fought alongside him during WWI, and who has come to be a friend and supporter of Lily. Most of the story takes place over a little more than a week, and the chapters are labeled with dates and times as well as the names of Lily and Fiona, to let us know from whose point of view we are hearing.
The research behind the story means that when we read about asthma cigarettes (with menthol) being prescribed for asthma, that was a real medical practice. As Montgomery states in the Author’s Note at the end, Prohibition becomes almost a main character in the novel as we learn about that era. She also shares how health issues such as diabetes and cancer were dealt with back then.
While one doesn’t have to have read the prior two novels to be able to enjoy this one, it certainly would make it a more enjoyable read to know all the characters and see how they have gotten to where they are in this book. As we see, many of the characters in this novel, just as in real life, are just trying to survive the best they can with the cards they have been dealt. Although we live in a different time, that is still true today.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by the publisher, Minotaur Books, for review purposes.