by Libby Fischer Hellmann
Published by Bleak House Books
396 pages, 2008
Reviewed by Jim Winter
Cam Jordan doesn’t see a high-school hazing when her fellow female students dump a bucket of fish guts over Sara Long’s head. He sees a princess. Then he sees the princess killed. By the time it’s all over, Jordan finds himself holding a bloody baseball bat, wondering if he was the one who did her in.
The police don’t wonder. To them, Jordan -- an autistic man with a dubious sex-offender status -- is the perfect suspect in Sara Long’s murder. In fact, the Illinois State’s Attorney is hell-bent on convicting him, and thereby getting this case off the books. Yet something is clearly wrong when former Chicago police detective Georgia Davis is brought in to investigate all these doings.
Davis, a freshly minted private investigator who, we’re told in Libby Fischer Hellmann’s new novel, Easy Innocence, left the Chicago force under a cloud, takes the case after receiving a call from Cam Jordan’s sister, Ruth. The assignment is not exactly a winner for a P.I. looking to drum up further business. Jordan’s lawyer, Paul Kelly, has all but given up, even before starting work on his client’s defense. Annoyed and still thinking too much like a cop, rather than a private eye, Davis decides to work this probe for more than just reasonable doubt.
Her search leads her to Chicago’s North Shore, a place author Hellmann describes as pretending to be sophisticated and wealthy, while being rather isolated and almost tribal. Asking about the murdered Sara Long leads Davis to three teenage girls: classmates Lauren Walcher, Heather Blakey and Clair Tennenbaum. Davis focuses on Lauren when Heather and Clair prove to be out of the loop. Hints of a stolen boyfriend between Sara and Lauren only raise Davis’ suspicions.
But the P.I. nearly loses her license as a consequence of concentrating on Lauren. While other crime novelists would operate differently, Hellmann lets her own protagonist make mistakes. Stupid mistakes, and quite believable.
It is, however, a big enough one to put Davis directly in the State’s Attorney’s crosshairs.
In the hands of some authors, this would have been a perfect excuse to riff on television’s Jim Rockford, no matter how uncalled for. Instead, Davis’ easily exposed impersonation becomes a cloud that hangs over her head for the rest of this story. It’s a blunder that could end her career as a P.I. before it really starts. But instead, Hellmann uses it to give Davis nothing left to lose. All she knows is being a good cop, which is often the antithesis of being a good private investigator. She doesn’t just want to get Cam Jordan off. She wants the truth. She wants a perpetrator.
Pursuing Lauren Walcher is how she plans to get them.
The Walchers, after all, are hiding more than they let on. Wealthy and part of North Shore society, the family doesn’t interact much with the Longs, except at a second-hand shop where Sara’s mother works. But Sara and Lauren were friends, and more. Davis finds there’s background to Sara’s hazing that goes beyond jealousy over a stolen boyfriend.
Hellmann builds a complex web of deceit and treachery. It’s not uncommon for writers, particularly crime writers, to paint an almost Stepford Wives picture of suburban life, a placid appearance behind which hide the most horrible secrets. Hellmann peels back the layers slowly, however, teasing the truth behind Lauren and Sara’s relationship in fits and starts. Each piece of the puzzle raises more questions than its answers: a land deal involving Lauren’s mother, a dead uncle who took a liking to Sara, an unfaithful ex-boyfriend and a boy named Derek who seems rather well-connected for a high-school dropout. All of these complications swirl around Lauren Walcher as Davis digs deeper into Sara Long’s too-short life.
Two other men hover in the background at the start of Easy Innocence. One is Harry Perl, an obnoxious real-estate developer who becomes a crude and malevolent presence in this story. The other is Matt Singer, Davis’ ex-boyfriend.
Perl is the perfect antagonist. Arrogant, ruthless, and eventually violent, he also exudes a certain panic as his role in the murder is exposed.
Matt, on the other hand, is a bit annoying. He shadows Georgia Davis through most of the story with no apparent reason to be there. His role as a cop turned foreign agent smacks of a romantic-suspense character dropped into an urban thriller. Near the end, his role makes more sense, but early on, he’s much more of a distraction.
If Matt seems to be a square peg in this tale, though, Davis is most certainly not. She lacks confidence, but not resolve. At several points here, she ponders dropping her case, only to carry on because she doesn’t really know how to do things differently. When her life is put in danger, she decides that the investigation is bigger than her, and her drive wins over even the reluctant defense attorney, Kelly, who eventually relishes a chance to stick it to the State’s Attorney.
Lauren, too, becomes a compelling character once the story’s second act begins. Starting out as a teenager with a disturbing secret to hide, she evolves into a girl trapped by her own ambition, and eventually one who wants nothing more than to make things right. Hellmann’s best accomplishment is making this Lauren’s story to an even greater degree than it is Davis’. Easy Innocence is more Ross Macdonald than Robert B. Parker, something long overdue in modern P.I. fiction. | June 2008
Jim Winter is a writer, reviewer and comedian in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he does tech support for an insurance company. He’s a regular contributor to Crimespree and an occasional contributor to both The Rap Sheet and the comedy podcast The Awful Show. His short stories have appeared in Pulp Pusher, Spinetingler Magazine and Plots With Guns. Check out his blog, Edged in Blue.