Fans of the Georgia Davis PI series (Easy Innocence and Doubleback ), and anybody that loves police procedurals written tautly, with grit and a healthy dose of noir will love this one. Toxicity is a prequel to the other Georgia Davis PI books and takes place ten years earlier when Georgia is a young cop on an suburban Chicago police force.
The story opens with a hook. The antagonist over seeing the death of a man dying in agony. This prologue will pull the reader in and grab their attention like a road accident. There is no cure for morbid curiosity.We know we shouldn’t look, be we can’t help ourselves.
In suburban north shore Chicago three bodies turn up in succession, all ‘dumped’; one in a garbage truck to be ground up, one in a land fill and one in a pit in a waste disposal site. Glenbrook detective Matt Singer is called to the scene of the first body where Officer Georgia Davis, his fiancé, is securing the scene doing crowd control. Soon another body is discovered in the jurisdiction of Detective Sergeant John Stone, from neighboring Northview. There’s nothing to tie the crimes together except for the fact that both were peripherally associated with a developer named Feldman who also owns the garbage company. Singer and Stone partner up, and when a third body shows up, and the actual cause in none of the deaths is readily identifiable by the M.E. The political pressure, and the pressure from the wealthy Feldman’s starts to pile on.
Solid leads are few, and clues are non existent. As close as can be determined, all three deaths were from different causes and could have been innocently explained, except for all three bodies were moved to Feldman properties. Singer is driven by his Jewish heritage to reconcile murder and the pursuit of justice for the victim with his heritage. Even though Georgia is a young inexperienced patrol cop, he recognizes her intelligence and tenacity and unofficially thrust her into the case. But when Singer and Davis’ boss finds out they are living together, Davis is suspended. At first Davis, hurt by the fact that Singer betrayed her in order to stay on the case , and also because of the fact that to Singers family, Davis is just Singers shiksa, and she not only feels rejected by his family, but looked on as a flirtation or even his whore.
Georgia hits the bottle, but soon gets herself together and starts to research the different deaths, looking for a common thread. Mean while Singer, frustrated by the lack of progress, and succumbing to both the pressure from his family and the pressure from from his bosses, marginalizes Georgia and starts falling for the beautiful Ricki Feldman, the daughter of the wealthy developer who had started off as a garbage man 20 years earlier. Ricki is not only an observant Jew, but stunningly gorgeous and she has Singer in her sights.
The story is really a “how done it”, not a who done it, and Hellmann writes tight well researched prose to make the story work oh so well. There is a certain “hardboiled” feeling to the story without the use of the usual clichés.Instead, the dialogue is taut and to the point but never relies on “tough guy” one liners. The hardboiled atmosphere, instead comes from the dark aspects of the story and the gritty persistence of the characters and a pace to the story that is perfect.
The character development, which happens slickly as the plot unwinds, and is seamlessly woven into the story, draws the characters as real humans with real lives. Before you know it you are familiar with their dreams, frustrations and motivations. And there is nothing of the sensational, they walk across the scenes as complete characters, from wrinkled suits to bad habits, from endearing traits to thought processes.
The plot itself is complex and full of red herrings and dead ends that aren’t just “devices” but tell the back story. There are elements pertinent to current concerns about the environment, corporate greed, and corruption of the political and legal systems. Hellmann uses small details to instill a sense of place and to bring the story to life'; a Bob Dylan poster on a lawyers wall, with psychedelic colored hair (I own this poster!), the green copy button and the smell of ink from a Xerox machine. But the details push the story along, not weigh it down. You can see, feel, and smell the places and the people.
Hellmann is also wildly successful in developing empathy for the antagonist who is drawn as both a victim and a cold blooded serial killer. The back story is real, and has happened a thousand times only to be quickly forgotten, but Hellmann makes the reader aware that it is not forgotten by those whose lives it effected and that when the system fails, sometimes people take justice into their own hands.
Libby Fischer Hellmann is a transplant from Washington, D.C. Armed with a Masters Degree in Film Production from New York University, and a BA in history from the University of Pennsylvania, she started her career in broadcast news. Hellmann has lived in Chicago since ‘78, and the Windy City serves as a backdrop for most of her novels.
The Georgia Davis series was a spin-off of Hellmann's Ellie Foreman series, which debuted in 2002 with An Eye For Murder. Publishers Weekly called it a "masterful blend of politics, history, and suspense," and it was nominated for several awards. There are four books in the Ellie Foreman series, which Libby says is a cross between "'Desperate Housewives' and '24.'"
Libby also edited a highly acclaimed crime fiction anthology, Chicago Blues (October, 2007). In May 2010, she published an e-collection of her own short stories called Nice Girl Does Noir. Her next release, Set The Night On Fire , in December 2010, is a standalone thriller that goes back, in part, to the late Sixties in Chicago. Libby keeps a blog, Say The Word, where she talks about writing, hers and other authors, and just about anything else. Follow along.
Article first published as Book Review: Toxicity by Libby Fischer Hellmann on Blogcritics.
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