By Lisa Brackman
(Soho Crime; July 5, 2016)
I can’t dole out enough praise for Lisa Brackmann: she not only writes page-turning thrillers as well as anybody in the business, but her stories invariably spin off the populist strain I have dubbed “red noir,” a type of hard-boiled fiction that focuses on the real criminals in our society: crooked politicians and police, corrupt governmental agencies and the huge corporations that pull the strings to get with they want, without regard to what the public needs.
Go-Between, Lisa’s latest, is up to its throat in the rats that infest modern American society and the rest of the post-industrial world. It is absolutely gripping and deserves a spot on the bookshelf right next to Hammett’s The Glass Key and Red Harvest, two of the most noteworthy entries in this subgenre.
The novel will not officially be released until July, but I was lucky enough to receive an advanced copy for review. After reading it, all I can say is: mark July 25 on your calendar or preorder a copy now – I certainly have!
It’s no spoiler to say this book picks up with the major characters in her similarly excellent crime novel, Getaway, only with an intriguing twist.
If readers remember, after her husband’s death, Michelle Mason, the protagonist of Getaway, discovered that the real estate empire he operated was a sham, mired in fraudulent transactions and wholesale debt. Facing the end of his money – and her posh Beverly Hills lifestyle – she has taken a pre-arranged trip to Puerto Vallarta to regroup and figure out her next step.
On her last day, she meets Danny Finn, a former U.S. Air Force pilot who now operates a charter business. They spend an afternoon and evening in alcoholic carousing and become at least temporary lovers.
But Danny, it develops, ferry’s drugs into the U.S. as a contract employee of a crooked and sadistic CIA man named Gary. Gary forces Michelle to spy on a Mexican drug lord to avoid prison on trumped-up charges.
The book features Michelle being exposed to a variety of menaces, and she and Danny escape by means of her grit, keen intelligence and resourcefulness.
Go-Between picks up her story a couple of years later. She and Danny have changed their names and moved to Arcata, California, where she operates an upscale restaurant and he is a fire-fighter, albeit one who keeps his hand in the clandestine world of drug running by transporting pot.
Danny gets nabbed by the DEA in Texas while bringing in a load, and Gary reappears from the past to use Danny’s arrest and incarceration as a wedge to force Michelle into another unwanted spying mission: acting as the appointment secretary and girl Friday for Kaitlin O’Connor, a depressive and dipsomaniacal Texas millionaire who is the figurehead of a crime victims’ advocacy group.
The details of what occurs in the novel are too complex to quickly summarize. Suffice to say that Michelle finds herself squeezed between the shadowy U.S. black ops establishment, conservative businesses that profit hugely from the war on drugs and concomitant prison boom, and the drug dealers who, for ingenious reasons, secretly finance the anti-crime group. As the novel unfolds, she finds a way out of her predicament, prevents an assassination and meets with gangsters, a dowdy murderess, a drug legalization advocate and clueless lawyers who have been roped into the scheme without knowing the actual stakes.
The politics of the book are marvelous from my perspective. Instead of focusing on the activities of some penny ante hustler or cheap street crook, Brackmann takes on big business, the role of dark money in politics, the behind-the-scenes political maneuverings of law enforcement agencies and the secret manipulations of fundamentally corrupt organizations like the CIA.
These are gigantic targets that have far more impact on the average citizen than the stick-up artist who plunders $1600 from the till in the typical commercial robbery.
Michelle Mason is a marvelous heroine. Beaten, sexually assaulted and left to die in a Puerto Vallarta garbage heap, she was rather helpless in Getaway. Since then, however, she has beefed up, learned some self-defense techniques and become a cool-headed markswoman with a handgun. Not that she is going to give a real trigger-happy badass like Greg Barth’s Selena a run for her money, but she is at least more competent at staving off an attacker than she was in her first appearance.
And it isn’t her dead eye with a .38 caliber revolver or her martial arts skill that gets her through tight spots, anyway; it’s her cool head and wicked intelligence. It becomes clear that Gary may be a step or two ahead of her in the early going but she is a fast study and an adept at mental judo – using her opponent’s arrogance and cunning against him.
The characters in this novel are all completely realized and jump off the page, even those who have relatively minor parts in the story like Danny’s mysterious “friend,” Sam, or Gary’s frumpy but lethal henchwoman, Carlene.
Though the clues that turn out to be critical for Michelle appear in a fashion that seems a bit deus ex machina in some ways, their discovery is neatly worked into the plot with total believability. Aside from this relatively minor point, the book cobs along at a rapid pace (I read it in two short sittings, even though it is more than 370 pages long) and it ends in a satisfying way that signals us this marvelous character may have additional adventures in the future.
I, for one, would be delighted to see them. Like Ellie McEnroe, the heroine of Brackmann’s series set in post-Mao China (Rock, Paper, Tiger; Hour of the Rat; Year of the Tiger; Dragon Day), Michelle Mason has become one of my favorite literary characters, and Lisa Brackmann one of my favorite authors.