POLICE OFFICERS are expected to deal with the darkest sides of society without showing any cracks in their Kevlar-tough exteriors. Add personal problems to the daily pressures of being a cop, and many would crumble under the strain. In Ice Shear by M.P. Cooley, Officer June Lyons is dealing with the death of her husband, which left her a single parent to a six-year-old daughter. In Land of Shadows by Rachel Howzell Hall, Detective Elouise Norton is struggling with the childhood loss of her sister as well as the current disintegration of her marriage. Both women are incredibly complex characters who are tough to their core, as well as being excellent police officers.
Ice Shear features June Lyons, formerly an FBI agent and now a small-town cop. Lyons gave up a promising career in the FBI when her husband, Kevin, also an FBI agent, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. In order to care for him and their daughter, Lyons chose to leave the FBI and return to her small hometown in upstate New York, working in the local police department where her father was chief before his retirement. The small family moved in with Lyons’s father, and three years after her husband died (when the action takes place) Lyons and her daughter are still living there, gratefully relying on him for childcare and support. Going home was a difficult choice for Lyons — instead of a glamorous career chasing bad guys across the country, she returned to an economically imploding town where her shifts consist of writing traffic tickets and seeing that the local drunks get home safely.
Cooley perceptively portrays the life of a hardworking single mother — trying to be taken seriously in a department where she is overqualified while balancing the demands of a small child. In fact, Lyons is trying to get home to her daughter when she stumbles across a distraught teenager, Jackie DeGroot, floundering in the snow. Retracing the mute and shaken Jackie’s steps back to the Hudson River leads Lyons to a body impaled on the ice. She is quickly pulled into the murder investigation, leaving her father to take care of things at home.
The body turns out to be Danielle Brouillette, the daughter of a local congresswoman. It is immediately apparent that this case is going to have significant political implications, so the FBI sends an agent, Hale Bascom, to the scene. This causes Lyons more than a little heartache — Hale was a close friend, but their friendship soured when Hale refused to acknowledge her husband’s illness. Her feelings about Hale aside, Lyons is generally less than thrilled to be working with the FBI again. When she resigned, many agents sneered that she left because she couldn’t handle it: “Kevin was disabled for a long time, and I was the loser who quit when things got to be too much […] and people more or less washed their hands of us at that point. Or me, since I couldn’t hack it.”
But “hack it” she does. Lyons doggedly investigates Brouillette’s murder, soon learning that the victim had rejected her parents’ lavish lifestyle, choosing rebellion and troublemaking instead. Danielle was kicked out of several high schools and then was asked not to return to UCLA; it seems she had some trouble keeping track of her Adderall — with three prescriptions from three different doctors, who could blame her? When she returned home from California to upstate New York, she brought a new husband, Marty Jelickson, a refugee from one of the most dangerous and infamous biker gangs in the country, the Abominations, best known for violence and methamphetamine production. Danielle’s stepfather describes them: “Those Abominations don’t leave any slimy rock unturned — drug dealing, arms dealing, abusing women, prostitutes.” Marty turned away from the Abominations, tried to go straight with a 9-to-5 job, and faithfully attends AA. He even moved across the country to gain distance from them, taking his brother Ray with him. But the Abominations aren’t so quick to let go, and a large contingent of the gang, headed by Marty’s own parents, comes to town to support their “wayward” son in his time of grief.
Through the many twists and turns this novel takes — and the gory endings for some of the characters — Lyons proves herself an eminently likable character, level-headed, thorough, and tough. Cooley’s writing has an easy flow and feels very conversational. The pacing is excellent and the storyline so engrossing that it’s difficult to believe Ice Shear is a debut novel. The book is wry, and even minor characters, like the town junkie, are painted so vividly that they could be standing before you:
Today was one of Barbara’s good days. Her voice was full, and you could make out the former fun girl underneath the wreckage. She was wearing her lamb’s wool jacket and a fox stole around her neck, more holes than fur at this point. Her eyes were lined up to her eyebrows like Cleopatra, and she’d teased the hair on her left side into a bouffant style held in place with a rhinestone barrette.
Cooley’s characters are bursting with vitality, practically leaping off the page.
Hall also has a knack for character. Land of Shadows is an absorbing tale with a tough yet sympathetic protagonist, Elouise Norton, a black female detective with the Los Angeles police department. Norton works in the same poverty-stricken Central LA neighborhood where she grew up — Baldwin Village, affectionately called “the Jungle”:
A used-to-be-nice-place-to-live back in the Sixties […]. Shootings in the alleys (so many alleys in the Jungle) behind those roomy apartments caused white folks to flee and middle-class blacks to move to Inglewood. The neighborhood was bad when I was a kid, but in a candy-is-bad-for-you kind of way. Now, though, it was bad for you like swallowing Drano followed by a rat poison chaser.
Hall manages the first-person narration to give an intimate feel and add depth to the observations.
Much like Ice Shear, Land of Shadows is a tale of loss — as a child, Norton’s sister disappeared and her case was never solved, the impetus for Norton becoming a cop, driven to procure the justice for others that she and her mother never received. The loss and uncertainty of what happened to her older and admittedly wild sister hangs over Norton, and she treads carefully to ensure that her own past doesn’t cloud her judgment on the job. She has to ensure that she is not seeing connections to her sister’s disappearance where none exist.
Remaining objective, however, becomes difficult. It starts to seem as though there is, in fact, a connection between her sister’s case and her latest assignment. A young girl’s body is found hanging in the closet of a construction site. At first it looks like a suicide, but Norton immediately notices that it is anything but. While her new partner, Colin Taggert, is losing his dinner on the crime scene, Norton realizes that the girl couldn’t have hung herself with her hands tied so tightly behind her back. And the site where the girl is found? It just happens to belong to Napoleon Crase and his partners, the same man who owned the store where Norton’s sister was last seen.
“Back in the day, he [Crase] owned only one store […] Crase Liquor Emporium. […] Then, one store became two stores, then so on and so forth.”
I told my partner about Crase’s rise in Los Angeles’ business world, and I also shared with him Crase’s well-documented propensity to date girls young enough to be his granddaughters.
Careful not to bring old grudges to the table, even when Crase’s address turns up in the dead girl’s apartment, Norton tells her partner she needs even more before she can bring him in for questioning: “If I screw this up, shoot my wad just cuz I found an address in this girl’s diary and he and his lawyer come up with a reasonable explanation, then he’s gone. And I’ll go back to hunting for something else to get him on.” Norton wants to make sure any charges she brings against Crase stick this time.
Norton has worked hard for her rank, while her partner Taggert, a young white cop from Colorado, made detective through family connections after only a few years on patrol. Taggert spends much of the novel struggling with his role as a subordinate to the vastly more experienced Norton:
Because Colin was an ass, twenty-eight years old, and had the least seniority on the team, I assigned him Dumpster duty.
“You want me to dig through the trash?” he asked, mouth agape.
“Uh-huh. Look for anything that may possibly be related. Start with that one.” […] He scowled. “I didn’t come all the way from Colorado to dig through some trash can.”
It’s obvious that part of his internal struggle is that Norton is a woman, and he has to bite his tongue (not always successfully) when she gives him an order. His arrogance and his inexperience make the investigation more difficult:
“The interview with Monique’s parents,” he said. “You sent me on an errand like I was your kid or some shit.”
I ran my fingers through my hair […]. “Have you ever taken classes in body language?”
“Then you know —”
“That they were embarrassed. I know —”
“Especially in front of a funny-talking white man wearing cowboy boots.”
Instead of having a partner she can count on, Norton is saddled with one she has to coddle and babysit.
Norton also struggles to come to terms with the reality of her crumbling marriage — her sanctuary from the often-brutal realities of the job is her home, and her husband’s philandering puts that refuge into jeopardy. They live in a fancy condominium her husband pushed her into buying in an upscale neighborhood, but as it turns out Norton genuinely needed an escape from the job:
It took an eleven-year-old girl dying after storing her mother’s crystal meth in her vagina to make me sign the title. After catching that case, I had needed a retreat from evil, a Shangri-la far from nuts who lit loved ones on fire and drowned their babies in toilets.
Her husband’s continued infidelity threatens the safety of the sanctuary Norton has built, and adds another element of unrest to her already tumultuous personal life.
Overall, the tone of Land of Shadows is dark and intense, the language gritty and authentic. The sights and sounds of the neighborhood come alive:
At 3:12 in the morning, the city still slept. Despite their neon beckoning, Jack in the Box and Alex Fish Market were closed until a reasonable time of day. Jehovah’s Witnesses weren’t up and out, either, so no one wandered the streets wearing nylons and neckties. The bail bond joints were open, but then bail bond joints were always open and always filled with baby mamas hoisting sleepy toddlers on their hips or abuelitas clutching purses to chests, sick and tired of That Boy messing up again […].
Hall does an outstanding job capturing the texture of life in the city and of life as a cop — right down to the gallows humor found at many a crime scene — and the complex, riveting storyline is often surprising.
Both Lyons and Norton work in a male-dominated field, as do their authors. Regardless of how good she is, a woman working as a cop has to be tougher, smarter, and quicker than her male counterparts to be accepted in the squad room. In Ice Shear, Lyons not only endeavors to find her place in the department, she fights to find a balance between work and home. In Land of Shadows, Norton worked twice as hard to gain recognition as a detective, and although she is confident about her place in the department and on the streets, she struggles to avoid being defined by the past and her family’s tragedy. Their struggles make both of these women wonderfully complex characters, with complicated pasts and presents. And instead of hindering them, Norton and Lyons use their experiences and losses — painful though they may be — to gain insights into the complex cases they are asked to solve. Norton and Lyons do more than overcome gender bias on the job, they use that bias to their advantage, since villains oftentimes underestimate a woman — and women like them should never be underestimated.
Erica Ruth Neubauer is a contributing editor to Crimespree Magazine.