The Woman Who Knew Too Much by B. (Bett) Reece Johnson is the first of three Cordelia Morgan mysteries, the last of which appeared ten years ago. Some readers may have a difficulty with the structure of this novel because Cordelia Morgan is not the protagonist or is at best a co-protagonist with Jet Butler, the character around whom the story unfolds.
Butler is hiding out in Northern New Mexico under an assumed name after an unfortunate event twenty years in her past involving the deaths of innocent women and children. She returns home from teaching a college course in California to witness the death of a neighbor––another refugee from academia who is hiding out from his own demons.
Butler is soon drawn into a whirlwind that threatens her quiet exile. Into the storm steps Cordelia Morgan disguised as the dead professor’s former student, but in truth weighted down with her own hidden agenda—preservation of a water rights agreement whose opponents were led by Butler’s tenant neighbor.
Butler and Morgan couldn’t be more different. Butler is consumed by doubt and fear as she tries to make sense of the people and the events that have overtaken her. Morgan on the other hand is a cool customer confident in her extra ordinary abilities yet not sure how to draw the line between her past and her future. The result is a tale of rising tension as the two women seek to unravel the truth of what happened to the dead academic and make sense out of their own checkered pasts.
One aspect of Johnson’s writing that makes The Woman Who Knew Too Much stand out in addition to the characters and the story itself is Cordelia Morgan’s internal dialogue presented in short chapters in between those written from Jet Butler’s point of view. Morgan is as unique a character as you’ll ever want to meet––smart, beautiful and possessing a sixth sense. She’s almost a super hero––out of touch with the vagaries of daily life that drag down people like Jet Butler.
I might quarrel with Johnson over how she defines two large external forces––the federal government which failed to investigate a Waco-like siege that killed innocent women and children and The Company––a seemingly all-powerful International business organization for whom Morgan has worked for the past ten plus years. But I’ve used that literary devise myself (in my first novel, The Expendable Man). There is a danger of making those forces so powerful defeating them lacks credibility.
There were also a few particulars that I didn’t buy, including a watch dog that didn’t bark at strangers, but Johnson is a wordsmith of the first order. “We chart our path in a different book,” she writes on Page 204, “a sordid unsacred text––a guide to our accidental universe that brooks no god and never did and never will, so that the human beast manufactures its own seed, sows its miracles and reaps such reward or punishment as befits the season. We are creatures eternally damned, sentenced at birth to everlasting freedom.”
Strange, but true coda: I picked this book off a shelf of free books in Elkridge, Maryland and decided to read it when I noticed it was a former library book from the Southern Saratoga Library system in upstate New York near where I grew up and now spend my summers. I’d love to solve the mystery of how this copy came to be on that shelf.