Danger lurks in gritty Texas

Here’s a review of a second novel by a fellow newspaper veteran who is a transplant to North Carolina. The review, now with a couple of modifications, first ran in the Greensboro News & Record.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

WINNING TEXAS. By Nancy Stancill. Black Rose Writing. 226 pages. $16.95, paperback.

In real world time, it’s been two years since Nancy Stancill’s first thriller, “Saving Texas,” appeared on the scene. But in book time, it’s been four years, and Stancill’s heroine, Annie Price, has faced changes and setbacks.

As Stancill’s new book, “Winning Texas,” opens, the newspaper business is in even worse straits than it was before. Annie is working as an assistant metro editor because her beloved job as an investigative reporter has been eliminated.  The newspaper is so short on staff, however, that she sometimes gets to help cover a story, an opportunity she relishes. Like everyone else on the staff, she lives with the constant threat of being “downsized,” a prospect that appears more imminent as the story progresses.

Her personal life is not faring much better.  As the previous book came to its dramatic conclusion, her longtime relationship and her newer romantic interest both ran into major problems. At 40, Annie is wary about getting involved with someone new or picking up where she left off with anyone from her past. But sometimes she’s tempted.

In the greater world, many things remain much the same, however. Houston, where Annie works for the only daily newspaper, is still a gritty city, And Annie and the reporters who answer to her often see the worst it has to offer – an unidentified body in the ship channel, topless clubs that push the limits of lax laws, even human trafficking. All of Texas, really, is still a rough, sometimes violent place. Annie was instrumental in helping to thwart the secessionist movement four years earlier, but there are signs that its ringleaders have not given up their goals, and that they are still dangerous.

Meanwhile, the German Texas movement is gaining momentum. The idea is to enhance and capitalize on the strong German heritage in the Texas hill country in an effort to draw tourists and stimulate the economy. As the story progresses, it becomes evident that the secessionists take a dim view of the German Texas movement and pose a threat to its members. Annie and one of her reporters are at a German Texas fundraiser when the threat becomes all too real.

Two dramatic murders propel the action, and one hits very close to home: A young reporter who works with Annie is killed in the parking lot of a strip club he’s investigating.

Stancill, who left a real-world investigative reporting job in Houston to move to Charlotte with her husband, has written a sequel to her first thriller that provides a fast-moving plot and plenty of action. She writes in third person, shifting the point of view among various leading characters.

This second book shows some maturity as a writer: The dialogue is more believable, and Annie is a little more discriminating in her romantic dealings with men.  Stancill continues to paint a realistic, if depressing, picture of the state of the newspaper industry, and she doesn’t hesitate to portray some of the contemporary problems and tensions in the state of Texas.

“Winning Texas” also has fewer editing lapses than the first book, although there is a confusing passage in which Sunday morning somehow becomes Saturday morning.

As she did at the end of “Saving Texas,” Stancill leaves us with the strong suggestion that Annie Price has more adventures ahead of her in another book in the Texas series. It would be interesting if, now that she lives in North Carolina, Stancill would try her hand at a thriller that delves into the darker side of this state. Maybe if Annie is downsized in Houston, she’ll find a new job at a newspaper in Charlotte or, say, Greensboro.

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