James L’toile calls on his vast experience in the criminal justice system to debut what Auntie M hopes is the start of a new series, At What Cost.

Set in Sacramento, he introduces Detective John Penley and his new partner, late of Internal Affairs and therefore proving her worth, Detective Paula Newberry. Facing a puzzling case will either cement or destroy their budding relationship, when trunks of headless and limbless bodies of gang members start appearing.

This is not your usual serial killer at work, and there soon becomes a personal component for Penley relating to his ill son that ties the investigation together and points squarely at the detective, for his son is on a kidney transplant waiting list, an organ he desperately needs.

Far from a simple manipulation of the supposedly-secure integrated donor system, there’s more at stake here as the two detectives dig deeper and the taunting of the killer rises. Can Penley use his son’s illness to flush out this maniac before he kills again? Or should he do a deal with the devil that might save his son’s life?

L’Etoile gets gang culture just right, along with the deranged personality of the demon his detectives seek. He knows the lie of the land in a police station, too. His work includes associate warden in a maximum security prison, director of adult parole, a primary hostage negotiator, and a national consultant on prison-based rehabilitation programs. This extensive experience runs the gamut of what humans are capable of doing to one another, and L’Etoile puts that knowledge to very good use in making this one of the most realistic and heartfelt crime thrillers she’s read in a good while.

The characters are complex and the pacing frenetic as the urgency to find the killer ramps up the action as a young boy’s life hangs in the balance. A powerful debut with a thriller of a police procedural at its heart. Readers will be waiting for Penley and Newberry’s next case.