By Louise Ure
Published by Minotaur Books
352 pages, 2009
Perversions of Truth
Reviewed by Jim Winter
“I got away with murder once, but it looks like that’s not going to happen again.”
That is how Jessie Dancing begins the tale of her former life coming back to haunt her in Liars Anonymous. Jessie works for HandsOn, an OnStar-type service for motorists in distress. The trouble begins when real-estate developer Darren Markson is involved in a collision out in the Arizona desert, and Jessie fields his call. At first, it seems like nothing, a late-night accident; but then Jessie hears sounds of fighting over the phone. By morning, Markson is reported missing, and Jessie is summoned from Phoenix to go to Tucson, where she’s to talk with police and meet Markson’s wife, Emily.
Tucson is the worst place for Jessie to go. It’s been three years since she stood trial there for the murder of abusive Walter Racine, only to be acquitted of the crime. She has since changed her name, her look and her life. But her mother has shunned her from their family’s life. Only Detective Deke Treadwell of the Tucson PD and Jessie’s father believe she’s innocent.
The trip to Tucson is supposed to be a quick in and out. Talk to Treadwell. Play the tape for Emily Markson. Go home. Unfortunately, though, police detective Len Sabin, who investigated Walter Racine’s murder, possesses a vengeful streak. He not only follows up with the HandsOn folks about the Markson call, but reveals to them their employee’s notorious past as Jessie Grammage. Jessie is soon fired from both HandsOn and her house-sitting gig. While Jessie thinks Markson may have been killed, Emily insists he’s alive and claims to have heard from him since the accident.
It’s because of Sabin’s petty backlash that Jessie finds herself entwined in a new murder case, this one involving Markson, a young legal intern named Felicia Villalobos and Mexican gangbanger Carlos Ochoa. Before long, Jessie and Carlos’ brother, Guillermo, are confronting a gang known as the Braceros, who run drugs and act as “coyotes,” men who smuggle illegals across the border from Mexico into the United States.
Because she is now homeless and unemployed, Jessie finds herself taking over her sister’s car and apartment. She also begins picking up strange men in bars, at one point nearly getting raped. A year in jail helps her escape that fate. The only stability she finds comes not from her family, but from a casual affair she begins with Guillermo.
Jessie Dancing is a woman who cannot outrun her past. As she says at the beginning of Louise Ure’s new Liars Anonymous, she got away with murder once, having killed Walter Racine. Over the course of this story, however, as the events surrounding Markson’s disappearance escalate into a gang war, Jessie begins to question her own motives. Despite the faith some people have in her innocence, she has killed before, but she believes that crime was justified.
Or does she? Guilt begins to overrun Jessie as questions arise about her motives. It drives her to find out why Darren Markson and his assistant, Felicia Villalobos, died and why Carlos Ochoa disappeared, all within a week of that fateful call to HandsOn. Guilt also makes act irresponsibly.
This is a standalone work, but author Ure revisits familiar ground. Like her previous novels, The Fault Tree (2008) and Forcing Amaryllis (2005), Liars Anonymous prowls the streets and the Mexican border near Tucson, Arizona. Ure writes a taught thriller, twisting her story in practically every scene. What starts out as a routine phone call becomes a conspiracy exposing the grossest abuses of border coyotes.
Ure is also thoughtful, without getting preachy, about illegal immigration. Far from sounding a hysterical alarm about the evil horde pouring across America’s southern border, Ure shows us people trying to get to a better life under the radar and the dangers they face. She is neither judgmental about the situation, nor does she take a stand one way or the other. It’s a leaky border, and that fact is part and parcel of the story.
Protagonist Dancing is finely drawn. The admitted “Queen of Liars Anonymous,” she gleefully admits posing as a former nun to get a house-sitting gig and pulling the wool over her boss’ eyes to work for HandsOn. She also has a reckless streak, which may have driven her to poke her nose where it doesn’t belong, into the middle of the Markson investigation. That same recklessness may or may not have led her to kill Walter Racine. It certainly keeps her in the crosshairs of Detective Sabin.
Sabin, by the way, was a character I didn’t want to like. He calls himself “an elephant” who “never gives up.” The bad mixed metaphor sounds like macho posing. And yet, you can’t argue with the man’s logic. A woman got away with murder, and he believes she is neither innocent nor justified. In his mind, finding a nefarious role for Jessie Dancing in this latest case becomes a mission. However, his spiteful streak, making a phone call to destroy Jessie’s new life away from Tucson, puts him firmly in the villain role. A legal and somewhat warranted villain, but a villain just the same.
Liars Anonymous is a sharply etched tale, as stark and unrelenting as its desert setting. | June 2009
Jim Winter is a writer and reviewer in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he does tech support for an insurance company. He’s a regular contributor to The Rap Sheet and Mystery Scene, and an occasional contributor to both Crimespree 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. He lives with his wife, Juanita, and stepson A.J.