Book Review: Reef Road by Deborah Goodrich Royce

My Book Review, as it appears in the New York Journal of Books:

Author Deborah Goodrich Royce’s psychological thriller Reef Road hits the high notes of suspense with breathtaking sleight of hand, building as it unfolds in alternating chapters written in two tenses like puzzle pieces that keep the reader on their toes.

The story is one-part true crime detective novel that reads like creative nonfiction concerning a decades’ old unsolved murder, and one-part literary thriller involving a woman enmeshed in a self-created chain of events now careening out of hand. Reef Road seamlessly weaves two storylines while suspensefully delaying their linkage, oscillating with a slow burn between what is perceived at face value and what really happened.

The story opens in media res, under the prologue’s heading The Wife. It is May 2020, in the advent of Covid-19’s lockdown, when two boys find a disembodied hand washed up on Palm Beach, Florida’s sand. When the boys alert the authorities, so begins Reef Road’s harrowing backstory that leads to that severed hand.

An unspecified voice under the heading A Writer’s Thoughts narrates intermittingly throughout Reef Road. The writer researches the 1948 Pittsburg death of 12-year-old Noelle Huber, whose murder to date remains unsolved. Now living abjectly alone in Palm Beach with an aged dog named Cordie, the decidedly peculiar writer has personal interest in the case and reports, “I grew up under the shadow of a dead girl—a girl I had never met, whose family had not heard of me, a family I would not know if I passed them on the street, nor would they, in turn, know me.” The weight of the dead girl’s shadow is due to the writer’s neurotic mother, once a close, childhood friend of Noelle Huber’s, who remained indelibly scarred by her murder in such a way that made her exceedingly nervous and cast a pall on the writer’s childhood.

Investigating decades’ old evidence, the writer’s feelings are complicated by residual resentment associated with the case. In speaking of the damage incurred from growing up with her paranoid mother in a small town on the outskirts of Pittsburg, the writer says, “My mother’s imprint of her friend’s murder was that of the twelve-year-old child she’d been at the time. A large part of her was frozen in 1948.”

In addressing what it was like to grow up with a damaged mother, the writer says, “I didn’t want to have that kind of mother. I did not want to be that kid. I did not want to come from the family I did, with some string attaching us all to a dead girl.” In explaining what clearly becomes an unhealthy obsession with Noelle Huber’s murder, the writer says, “A single act of violence does not end. Noelle Grace Huber was murdered seventy-two years ago this year, but, for me—for others like me—it never ends.”

Linda Alonzo does not speak Spanish. Married to a prosperous Argentinian named Miguel Alonzo, she is the mother of two young children who grew up in Pittsburgh and now lives in the tony section of Palm Beach’s Reef Road. The marriage is difficult, and with regard to Miguel, “Linda increasingly chafed under the yoke of his control.” Yet the perks of the marriage outweigh the obvious. “Linda and Miguel were walking the edge, all right. The edge of what, precisely, she did not know.”

Diego Alonzo is presumed dead. The elder brother of Miguel, his last known whereabouts was in the mountains of Bolivia decades prior, after he fled another fight with his mother, before all lines of communication went dead. In the dark of night, the mysterious Diego manifests at the Alonzo’s Reef Road front door, and ushers in familial upheaval complicated by the constraints of the Covid-19 pandemic, making his visit protracted, adding chaos to Linda and Miguel’s fragile marriage, and leading to an inciting incident in the tumultuous story: “At eleven a.m. on a Sunday morning, Linda picked up the phone to call the police and report her family missing. Why she had not called the cops, the day it had actually happened was an act of omission that would come back to haunt her.”  

The exciting, page-turning intelligence of Reef Road cannot be overstated. The clever story will please lovers of mystery, crime, and thriller genres. Author Deborah Goodrich Royce handles the balance of Reef Road’s off-kilter story with a magnificent, firm grip. The novel is rife with uncanny connections and flawed main characters with hidden agendas. It’s tense with secondary characters, whose impacts are stunning, as events ricochet in a series of strange chain-reactions sprung from perfectly timed twists you’ll never see coming.  

Meet the Author: Deborah Goodrich Royce

Deborah Goodrich Royce’s literary thrillers examine puzzles of identity. Finding Mrs. Ford and Ruby Falls will be joined by Reef Road in January 2023.

Deborah began her career as an actress, starring as Silver Kane, sister of the legendary Erica Kane (played by Susan Lucci) on the ABC soap, All My Children. She went on to star in feature films such as April Fool’s Day and Just One of the Guys, TV movies such as Return to Peyton Place and The Deliberate Stranger, and series such as Beverly Hills 90210 and 21 Jump Street.

After the birth of her daughters, she moved with her family to Paris and worked as a reader for le Studio Canal Plus. In the 1990’s, Deborah was the story editor at Miramax Films in New York. There, she oversaw readers, manuscript acquisitions, and script development, editing such notable screenplays as Emma by Doug McGrath, and early versions of Chicago and A Wrinkle in Time.

With writing partner, Mitch Giannunzio, Deborah won a grant from the Massachusetts Arts Council in 2002 to develop and workshop their original screenplay, Susan Taft Has Run Amok.

With her husband, noted small-cap investor, Chuck Royce, Deborah restored the 1939 Avon Theatre in Stamford, CT. Under her leadership, the Avon hosts an ongoing series of film luminaries, most recently, Mira Nair, Richard Gere and Chloe Sevigny. The late Gene Wilder, a longstanding advisory board member of the Avon, was an early advocate for Deborah’s writing.

Deborah and Chuck have restored several hotels (Ocean House, Deer Mountain Inn, Weekapaug Inn, and The Margin Street Inn), a bookstore (The Savoy in Westerly, RI), and numerous other Main Street buildings in Westerly, RI and Tannersville, NY.

Deborah serves on the governing boards of the New York Botanical Garden, the Greenwich Historical Society, and the PRASAD Project and the advisory boards of the American Film Institute, the Greenwich International Film Festival, the Preservation Society of Newport County, and the Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach. She is a former trustee of the YWCA of Greenwich and the Garden Conservancy.

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