Written by Barbra Leslie — Barbra Leslie’s debut is being marketed as belonging to the new trend in crime fiction of strong, fearless anti-heroines like those seen in such smash hits as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Whether or not this really is new is a matter for debate but Danny Cleary, ex-women’s defence teacher and currently full-time crack addict, is certainly a memorable protagonist.
Danny comes from a good, stable background but the chaos that consumed her marriage as her husband’s mental illness escalated out of control, and the guilt she feels over her divorce, have taken a terrible toll. She is no longer in contact with Jack, who was her first love, and now she is holed up in her Toronto apartment with fellow addict Gene, burning through credit as fast as her dealer can bring the rock to her. When we meet her, she doesn’t think anything could get between her and the pipe, that is until she receives a call to say her twin, Ginger, is dead.
Her rock star brother, Darren, pays for her to fly to California to meet up and arrange the funeral. Ginger was found hanging from a cheap hotel shower rail, and there is a fresh needle mark on her arm. The cops have called it a suicide due to the suggestion of drug use and the presence of a suicide note, but the siblings are unconvinced. Danny was the black sheep of the family and the only one who would do drugs. Besides which, Ginger loved her own twins too much to commit suicide. Too much doesn’t make sense, and Danny and Darren decide they will investigate.
When they arrive at Ginger’s home they find chaos. The police have come to the same conclusion and arrested Fred, Ginger’s husband. The twins have been taken in by the state until suitable guardians can be arranged. Danny and Darren agree a plan – Danny will visit Fred in jail whilst Darren goes to the orphanage to get the twins.
Fred’s lawyer, Chandler York, meets Danny at the prison and persuades the guards to let her speak to Fred. He claims innocence, but tells Danny that Ginger had developed an obsession with her edgy lifestyle and had started experimenting with drugs. He blames Danny for Ginger’s death. When Danny returns to the family home, she meets the two homicide detectives, Miller and French, who have been assigned to the case. Danny takes an instinctive dislike to French but feels warmer to Miller, and is just beginning to raise her concerns about the case when Darren returns. A woman, dressed much like Danny, has abducted the twins.
As the police begin to formulate a new strategy in the light of this development, Danny takes the chance to go upstairs to the bathroom to get high. Rooting around the medicine drawer she discovers a bundle of cash and a fake ID made out to look like her. Had Ginger taken her obsession so far that she was using Danny’s name when she started using drugs? Or was somebody else playing a more dangerous game with the twins?
The plot continues to grow satisfyingly complex, and the story ultimately moves back to Toronto and deals with her husband Jack’s troubled past. It is a little unbelievable in places, relying on coincidence and other artificial devices to move the story along. If I had stopped to consider this whilst reading the whole house of cards Barbra Leslie has crafted may have come tumbling down.
However, she doesn’t let the reader catch a breath. Danny’s first person narration is as quick as her pulse after a hit on the crack pipe, sweeping us along with her as she hunts for her twin’s murderer and battles to save her nephews. She is indeed a memorable protagonist and her struggle not to give in to temptation, to be high enough to function but not so high she reels out of control gives Cracked an added emotional punch.
The antagonist is revealed to be a really nasty piece of work, and the ending leaves the possibility of a rematch. Cracked is the first in a planned series of Danny Cleary thrillers, and Titan Books will be publishing the second, Rehab Run, in November 2016. I’ve got my own Danny Cleary addiction now.
Cracked is released 24 November. For more Canadian crime fiction, click here.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars