If the name sounds a bit familiar, it’s because I reviewed her first Detective Elouise Norton novel, Land of Shadows, last year. The book blew me away, and I’ve been waiting very impatiently on the follow-up. The wait has also been somewhat apprehensive. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a book by an author and was thrilled to discover them, only to have subsequent novels disappoint me.
That’s not the case with the new book in the series, Skies of Ash.
To be honest, it didn’t catch me immediately. In Land of Shadows, we had what looked to be the makings of a serial killer (at least to me) because of the nature of the crime. In Skies of Ash, the crime doesn’t seem quite as sexy at the outset: a woman and her two children killed in a house fire, the husband/father in the hospital after firefighters tackled him to prevent him from going into the burning house to rescue his family. And I think, in the hands of anyone else, this setup could have turned into something either dreadful or far too predictable.
But if this book taught me anything, it’s to expect the totally unexpected from Rachel Howzell Hall.
I’m not gonna give up any spoilers, though I am gonna reiterate what I said when I reviewed Land of Shadows: get this book and read it.
The protagonist, Elouise Norton—or Lou—still has an apparently philandering husband, who she has forgiven yet again. She’s still stuck with a cowboy partner who really doesn’t get her. And she has friends who, while they got her back, maybe nag at her a little too much—mostly about said philandering husband. And it doesn’t help that one of those friends is also a reporter who tries to get Lou to give up details she’s not at liberty to divulge.
Just another day at the office for our intrepid detective (yes, I went there).
But there are differences. Lou’s husband, Greg, is showing signs of jealousy. For some reason, he feels threatened by her partner. Of course, my thought when I read scenes where he’s razzing her for this working relationship was He seems to me to be protesting a bit too much. And there is a man she’s attracted to, though he’s best friends with the husband in the case and may well know things he’s not telling her.
On top of that, her colleagues suspect perhaps her domestic troubles are prejudicing her on this case, making her suspect the husband when it’s pretty obvious he’s too grief-stricken to be the murderer.
Especially when the evidence for murder is circumstantial, at best.
But Lou is, if nothing else, determined to get the bottom of this case, and the more layers she strips away, the stranger it all becomes. Maybe the murder isn’t as sexy at the outset as in the first novel, but this case works at you in others ways, worms its way into you consciousness until you have no choice but follow it all the way through. Which I did in about two days.
Ms. Hall does what I love most in a mystery: she makes the case have an effect on the main character. Just as Michael Connelly does with Harry Bosch and Robert Crais does with Elvis Cole, the ramifications change their lives, make the cases more than just another day at work for them. There are things in the case that parallel their personal lives in some way, and there are aspects of their jobs that they can’t leave in the office. These stories go far beyond mere mysteries or police procedurals. We get to see the humans behind the cases, and we come to care for them and empathize with the effects that witnessing humanity at its worse can have on the investigators.
They’re not getting through these things unscathed.
And that makes us love these people, makes us root for them as we never would for Sherlock Holmes. We want Sherlock to solve the case. But we want Harry and Elvis and Lou to triumph, not just over the case, but over the problems in their lives as well. And because they often fail—just as we do—we root for them that much more.
Ms. Hall steps outside the boundaries of the genre with these books, and that makes me a fan, not just a reader.
I only have one problem: Ms. Hall, if you’re reading this, where’s the next one?