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by Lisa Brackmann
Soho Crime, July 2016
373 pages
ISBN: 1616957247

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Emily runs a nice restaurant in northern California while her partner, Jeff, works as a pilot and firefighter. Actually, things are a little more complicated than that. In a previous life, Emily was Michelle Mason, who has had to create a new identity after her husband left her a widow with no money and a pile of bad debts. She met Jeff when escaping from an unscrupulous CIA agent who runs black ops funded with drug money. That's complicated, too: Jeff currently moonlights by delivering his county's local harvest cannabis to buyers, but before that his name was Danny and he was a CIA operative who grew disillusioned and barely got out with his life.

Emily worries their carefully constructed life could fall apart if Jeff keeps working on the shady side of the law. He wants to do a favor for a friend and make one last big score. You can probably guess how that turns out.

Soon Emily has a choice: leave Jeff to his fate and go on the run, or resume her previous identity and do a favor for Gary, the shady and well-connected CIA officer, who just wants her to babysit the figurehead for a charitable foundation for a while. This photogenic woman, once raped by criminals who murdered her husband and child, is now is the face of a foundation that raises money for victims and is pushing legislation in California that is of particular interest to the prison-industrial complex. She is also heavily medicated, often tipsy, and not aware of how her foundation is being used. Michelle has to keep her happy, but without intending it, she awakens the woman's interest in life and in her foundation's work, and that won't make Michelle's CIA handler happy. You probably won't guess how that turns out.

In her previous books, Lisa Brackmann has taken strong female protagonists into exotic places and plenty of danger. Here, in what may be her most accomplished thriller yet, she offers readers an equally strong sense of place in three locations: a damp, chilly fogbound part of Northern California, damp and hot Houston, where we visit wealthy homes and boardrooms with Michelle and the county jail with Emily, switching between identities to try and hold things together, and finally southern California, where the babysitting job grows even more complicated. Brackmann turns the same bright, inquisitive light she used to illuminate the contradictions of modern China on American politics, the security apparatus, the surveillance state, and the ties between the prison industry and the war on drugs. Though the protagonist previously appeared in GETWAWAY (2012), this novel can be read on its own.

Brackmann takes the noir formula things start out badly for a hapless hero and keep getting worse and gives it a feminist reboot. Michelle/Emily is a character who is put in an impossible situation with nothing but her intelligence, survival instincts, and a moral compass to show her the way. With her as a guide, accompanied by a cast of well-drawn characters, it's a fun, smart, and fascinating trip.

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, July 2016

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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