Throwing Off Sparks by Michael Pool

Throwing Off Sparks by Michael Pool

The first book in a promising new collection, PI Tales, Throwing Off Sparks is also the first book in a new series featuring an East Texas-based female private investigator named Riley Reeves. It doesn’t exactly read like a first-in-a-series, though, and maybe at some future date we’ll get to learn the details of how Reeves established her cred with the local constabulary by bringing down the ‘pure evil’ serial murderer Carl Farlow, whom the police couldn’t manage to nab.

Riley’s specialty is helping young women in trouble, and in the book’s ‘save-the-cat’ prologue, she’s in Dallas rescuing a young woman from a would-be rapist. Back home in Tyler, Texas, she’s on the lookout for some rent paying work.

Riley lives with her best friend Latonya, a black nurse she calls L, in the small ranch-style house that had belonged to Riley’s parents. Her only remaining family is her brother Chip, just released from a short stretch in prison, the result of a lifetime of lousy decisions. Chip lands at their parents’ house too, with an apparent plan to drink himself into oblivion. Because L sees through him in ways that Riley cannot, he decides that L is in the way. If he’s going to socialise, it will be with his best friend, Marty. Marty is Riley’s ex-husband and the last person she wants hanging around her house, falling off the wagon, and dreaming they’ll get back together.

A well-to-do couple appears in Riley’s office hoping for help with their 17-year-old daughter, Carmen. She has a rare chronic illness (acute intermittent porphyria), which has a range of symptoms that are physical, psychological and behavioural. Carmen’s mother is devoted to making sure her daughter has seen the best, most promising physicians. She takes multiple medications and has an array of supplements to forestall their side effects. In short, she’s a mess. Homeschooled and without many friends.

Someone is knocking on Carmen’s second-floor window at night and writing ominous messages to her. They seem juvenile but are unnerving. Privately, the father tells Riley about a second problem. Her ex-boyfriend is a few years older, a ne’er-do-well who runs with a rough crowd. Riley soon finds out exactly how rough when they threaten her, which only strengthens her resolve to protect Carmen. She, however, doesn’t want protection, making confrontations between Riley and Carmen, Riley and the rough crowd, and Riley and Carmen’s parents inevitable. Riley and her brother Chip – that’s another whole dilemma.

The plot is certainly absorbing and you want to keep reading, seeing how Riley works, how she solves problems, and whether she can manage not to alienate absolutely everyone. However, two features of the novel are off-putting. Riley has one emotional note – what a bad friend she is and what a bad sister she’s been and, on a down day, what a bad wife she was too, because she lets work come before friends and family, every time. It would be nice to see more emotional range. Carmen’s mother LeeAnne is another Johnny-one-note. She didn’t want to hire Riley in the first place and doesn’t let anyone forget it. She’s beyond rude. Her constant insults grow tiresome.

The other problem is that the dialects used don’t seem authentic. Perhaps rap music and pop culture have turned the good ol’ white boys of Tyler, Texas, into urban homie soundalikes, and I’m just behind the times. All the yo-ing and urban street slang the lowlifes in this book used sounded off to me.

Similarly, Pool uses ‘eye dialect’ for L’s conversation. She has an education and works at a hospital as a nurse (I think), yet she’s constantly ungrammatical, with statements like ‘I wanna get to bed before you crazy brother come home anyhow. Them fools were drunk as hell, boy cain’t behave once he be like that’ and ‘He sho do.’ Having L speak this way masks her savvy and makes her sound uneducated. In most writing circles, eye-dialect has gone out of style; certainly it should be used sparingly. Riley doesn’t talk that way, at all. So it jars.

This could be a series to watch (both PI Tales and the Riley Reeves mysteries), as they get their feet under them. Pool is an experienced crime writer, sure-footed in moving his story along.

More stories about women who like to get to the bottom of things: In the Silence by MR Mackenzie and The Blood Is Still by Douglas Skelton.

PI Tales
Print, Kindle
£3.83

CFL Rating: 3 Stars

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