Skies of Ash by Rachel Howzell Hall

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LA Homicide detective Elouise Norton returns to our shelves a year after making her terrific debut in Land of Shadows. If you’ve read that book, then you’ll know Norton is confident and assertive, and very much the senior detective in her partnership with Colin Taggert, who is white and from the south. But in her private life she is insecure and vulnerable. Her husband, Greg, is a handsome and successful computer games developer whose work takes him away from home frequently and puts him in the company of attractive young women. Norton has already forgiven him for more than one indiscretion, and rather dislikes herself for doing so.

Land of Shadows was not just exceptional for its multi-faceted and intriguing protagonist, but also the attention it pays to black, middle-class Americans. Crime fiction set within the black community seems to focus disproportionately on the poorest members of society. That’s understandable as that is where most crime occurs, but Land of Shadows shows us something new.

Norton and Taggert pick up a case involving a house fire. Juliet Chatman and her two young children, Chloe and Cody, have been killed and this makes it a possible homicide. Cody had a history of disturbed behaviour including starting fires, and Juliet called 911 when she discovered the blaze. Her voice was muffled, but it sounded as if she was accusing somebody of trying to kill her. Her husband, Christopher, a commodities broker, was not at home at the time of the fire, which started in the middle of the night. He arrived an hour after emergency services, and made an attempt to gain entry into the house, which at this point was a raging inferno. The detectives can’t help but wonder if his heroism was staged, and when they find drops of blood in his car, and three packed suitcases in his wife’s, he becomes their prime suspect.

When the investigators talk to the neighbours, they get a unanimous response: the Chatmans were a perfect family. No enemies, no relationship difficulties and no money worries. Their testimony is more concerned with a stranger seen on occasion in the vicinity, a young black male dressed in a hockey shirt. Chris’s best friend, going back to his college days is Ben Oliver, an insurance lawyer who has dealt with a lot of arson claims. He is adamant that Chris is innocent, and pressurises the detectives to chase up their other lead.

It doesn’t take long for little cracks to appear in the veneer of this perfect family. It transpires Juliet had recently bought a gun, a fragment of what may have been a suicide note is discovered at the house, and there is a suggestion that Chris may have had an affair that caused the break-up of a friend’s marriage.

Meanwhile, as Norton’s worries about her husband’s fidelity continue, her friends are advising her to have an affair with Colin Taggert, whose semi-serious flirtation suggests he would be interested. She is surprised, however, when she feels herself increasingly attracted to Oliver, despite his obstruction of their investigation and the fact that he is married.

Skies of Ash consolidates the promise Rachel Howzell Hall showed in Land of Shadows. Norton remains an engaging protagonist, capable and assertive, but also vulnerable. The increasing sexual overtones at work make the relationship between the two lead cops more interesting. I hope this simmers for a little while without being resolved too soon. The procedural aspect of the story is thorough and convincing, but the story suffers a little through lack of a major antagonist. The revelations about the Chatmans’ real lives become a little too complex and are occasionally difficult to follow.

Minor gripes aside, Skies of Ash reaffirms our view that the Elouise Norton series is set to run and run, and since it ends on a bombshell, we can’t wait for the next instalment. It’s called Trail of Echoes, so watch this space.

In November, author Rachel Howzell Hall told us about her four favourite classic crime novels. For more LA crime fiction click here.

Titan Books

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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