Written by Eden Sharp — In the hardboiled thriller The Breaks we meet two engaging and memorable characters – private investigator Angela McGlynn and her sometime associate John Knox. McGlynn is self-assured and sassy, a computer hacking whiz and martial arts expert, not above using her attractiveness to lure bad guys into compromising positions. Knox was US Marine with PTSD, haunted by his Afghanistan experiences. McGlynn takes on Knox as a favour to a friend who thinks the man needs to feel useful again. As the case she’s embarking on turns darker and more dangerous, she’s damn glad to have him at her side.
The action takes place in San Francisco, where you can go from exclusive neighborhood to dangerous gang territory in a few steps. All strata of society are compressed on a small peninsula, and McGlynn and Knox stray way off track in this complex story, presented in short scenes from multiple points of view. McGlynn narrates in the first person, keeping her in the center of the action, but the scenes from the perspective of various police officials and Knox are presented in third-person. There are quite a few characters to keep in your head, and I often had to use the search function to find the first mention of a name to place them.
Trouble begins when a retired high school teacher asks McGlynn to find his teenage daughter. She ran away two weeks previously, and the police aren’t really trying to find her. About all he can tell McGlynn is that the girl had a serious cocaine habit and threatened to turn to prostitution to support it. This prompts the investigator to reach out to her contacts among the city’s working girls. Soon one of them recognises the missing teen’s picture and reveals whom she’d been running with. That line of inquiry leads to one set of criminal activities.
McGlynn comes to suspect that the girl was snatched because of an identity mix-up. She was carrying the stolen phone and ID of the daughter of a big-time narcotics smuggler. With a number of inroad’s into the trafficker’s operation, the police are setting up a big sting. But as they move forward, they keep tripping over McGlynn and Knox, and they don’t like that.
Meanwhile, apart from her paid work for clients like the distraught dad, McGlynn uses her hacking skills to expose child pornography purveyors. She’s tracked down a big-time seller of these images who lives in the city. Whether she’ll be able to clean out his bank account (to the benefit of Thai orphanages for children rescued from the sex trade), and expose him and his clients without being caught by bank security is a third thread.
These three skeins of criminality and investigation inevitably become tangled, which makes for a challenging guessing game among McGlynn, Knox, the cops, and yourself. The police action is deliberately obscure; we don’t know exactly what they are up to or the extent to which they believe McGlynn is linked to one or more of these criminal enterprises.
Sharp has a talent for energetic prose that keeps this complicated story moving, and she is good at putting her characters in credible danger. The choreography of the final showdown is a little confusing, though the outcome is clear.
Ironically, I learned more about Knox’s character and motivations than McGlynn’s, despite the first-person narration. It makes for an interesting switch in expectations that McGlynn reacts to situations (after sex, in dangerous straits) in a coolly logical way typically associated with male protagonists, whereas Knox, because the trauma of his war experience is just under the skin, has more emotional reactions. One of the most creative and insightful aspects of the novel is McGlynn’s running analysis of people’s psychology in various situations. She has to be cool under pressure to maintain that analytic distance, and is.
Some individual scenes are gems: for example, one where the police are trying to play McGlynn, and she’s having none of it, and another where she overpowers a youthful would-be mugger, grabs his phone, scrolls down his contact list to Mom, fills the woman in on what her son is up to, and hands him the phone. I laughed out loud.
Sharp has a few troublesome writing tics, and the novel would have benefited from better proofing and editing. Nevertheless, it’s an engaging read, and I look forward to more from her and the further exploits of McGlynn and Knox.
Maximum City Publishing
CFL Rating: 4 Stars