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What the Monkey Saw by Lynn Chandler Willis

In the first of the Death Doula series, Lynn Chandler Willis paints a vivid portrait of the very real struggles facing a family in the Appalachian area of North Carolina. Written using a dual point of view, What the Monkey Saw presents two sides to the question of what constitutes right and wrong and will leave the reader wondering whether the end justifies the means.

Emily Gayle, a former FBI agent, deals with the emotional trauma caused by the death of her partner/finance by becoming a caregiver to the terminally ill. Jude Courtland, a transmission repairman struggling to support his family, meets Emily when she arrives to care for his dying grandmother, Hazel. As Emily grows attached to the Courtland family, she begins to suspect that Jude has involved himself in hijacking insulin to pay for his grandmother’s chemotherapy.

From the start, Willis garners sympathy for characters on both sides of the law by immersing the reader into their daily routines and exploring family relationships. Having been dealt a life of poverty, tragedy, and sickness, Jude is in denial, and grabs onto a false hope to save the woman who raised him. A classic tale of the impact of grief, the book had me rooting for this ‘bad guy’, despite the illegality of his actions As the evidence against Jude grows, Emily faces a moral dilemma when she learns her own father is purchasing black market insulin. What takes precedence: her duty to report the crime or her loyalty to Hazel and her ‘good boy’ grandson?

In part heartwarming and equally disturbing, What the Monkey Saw combines action scenes of criminal activity with domestic moments filled with both happiness and grief. By alternating slow burn chapters building the relationship between Emily, Hazel, and Jude, and fast-paced sections describing the crimes and their consequences, this novel keeps the reader riveted.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, from the initial hook of the drug heist to the explosive conclusion resulting from it, but it is the characters and their dilemma that will stay with me. The author drew me into their lives and into a world where the line between right and wrong is fluid. It’s not so much about the crime, but the people behind it.

Immersed in the characters’ lives, I found it impossible to put down this book. As the situation escalated, with Hazel’s declining health, Jude’s resolve to help her regardless of the consequences, and Emily’s inner struggle to turn him in or ignore the evidence, I raced to finish the last chapters.

Willis tackles the difficult topic of right and wrong with insight and empathy. The issue at the heart of this story is one that affects us all and will have the reader asking themselves: What would you be willing to do to save the one you love?

I highly recommend this book to readers of crime fiction who enjoy delving into the heart of the story behind the crime. Not everything is black and white. If you’re looking for characters who straddle the gray in between, you’ll find them here. What the monkey witnessed is the gritty life of real people in the Appalachian Mountains, or perhaps anywhere. What the monkey saw is the love that drives them to their actions.

An unforgettable read, What the Monkey Saw, will resonate with anyone who has loved and lost. I can’t wait for the next book in the series!

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