Rachel Howzell Hall, “Skies of Ash”

As previously mentioned about the pleasures of hanging out with Elouise “Lou” Norton, Rachel Howzell Hall’s compelling homicide detective, it’s all about the attitude. I dug Land of Shadows. And Skies of Ash quickly took me back to Norton’s sharply-barbed worldview and her grinding sense of determination when put on the scent of a murder. I mean if fellow L.A. detective Harry Bosch gets a TV show, certainly Elouise Norton deserves one, too. Maybe Bosch and Norton could meet up? I bet Norton could make Bosch laugh, loosen up some of that grim weight he drags around. (I’m a Bosch fan, don’t get me wrong. But I think Bosch would get a kick out of Lou’s dark comic jabs. He’d admire her work ethic, too.)

A sample of Norton’s snappy narrative about her endlessly awkward partner, Colin: “On my best days, Colin merely annoyed me—like the constant beeping of a truck backing up. To be fair, I didn’t know many (okay, any) twenty-eight-year-old, white-boy detectives from the Rocky Mountains. And he didn’t know any thirty-seven-year-old black female detectives from Los Angeles. So there was a cultural rift between my partner and me. A rift that was three galaxies wide.”

Hall injects her prose with a brisk liveliness. Standard descriptions take on a vivid quality with Hall’s eye and ear, as in when Norton shows up at the scene of house fire. “I photographed the crowd: a bald black man holding a toddler, an elderly Asian couple wearing matching jogging suits, a dark-skinned weight lifter with headphones around his thick neck, and the heroines of Waiting to Exhale wearing yoga pants and fruit-colored tank tops.”

Elouise Norton has her share of problems. Husband. Co-workers. Bosses. Let’s say “men” in general. Hall shifts gears effortlessly between the case and Norton’s personal life. Norton’s world, in fact, is a tangled braid of both. The twain don’t only meet, they meld. Norton is constantly marveling at odd bits about how the world functions—and why. Work and personal issues both serve up ample issues for Norton to contemplate. Norton’s pride is ferocious. She would very much like the world—including all of those in close orbit—to behave. But she’s already seen too much and knows when something doesn’t seem right.

“As a homicide detective, I regularly entered the homes of slain victims. There, I smelled tobacco caught in the curtains; smelled spilled beer and whiskey fumes in the rugs and wafting from the mountain of empties in the trash can. I noticed walls dented by doorknobs, fists, and skulls; crimson-colored splatters on ceilings and floorboards; teeth stuck in carpet.”

Teeth? In the carpet?

Skies of Ash revolves around a house fire. Something doesn’t line up. The dead inside include Juliet Chatman and two children, Cody and Chloe. The fire was arson, but was it arson designed to cover up a murder? Steadily, Norton pulls back the layers. The mother and children all had Valium in their system, and the mother was fighting cancer. Juliet’s husband Christopher is a commodities broker who returned to the house when it was fully engulfed. He had to be restrained from rushing inside. And there’s the husband’s best friend, a neighbor who is also an insurance lawyer. There are money issues that highlight possible motives. There are timing issues with Christopher’s comings and goings. And there are histories and relationships to uncover.

Pinning down Christopher is a challenge. Norton weighs the pros and cons of going “polite bird” or “rude bitch” to make him squirm. It’s the “secret sorcerers,” after all, who worry Norton more than the “obvious” villains. Christopher Chatman is a worthy nemesis and Norton tries every tack available to nail her prey, only after being taunted more than a little about how she treats men (both at home and at work).

I’m not saying Chatman did it. I’m just saying to read Skies of Ash.

Elouise Norton is worth knowing. And she’s certainly one to watch (soon, please, on a little screen or a big one).

++

Rachel Howzell Hall’s website

 

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