Mari E is an LA private investigator, distinctly low-rent to judge by her business premises, a converted container in a down-at-heel part of the city. Her premises neighbours are mostly scammers and grifters of one kind or another. She is a former government agent. She has been hired by an federal appellate judge to find out who is blackmailing him. Whoever it is wants her off the case and has been threatening her with anonymous notes. She is also certain she is being followed. For back-up she hires a partner, former LAPD detective, and now a PI himself, Derek Abernathy. He is very smart, though, and soon works out that Mari E leads a double life.
“So I have two jobs, what’s the big deal? A girl’s gotta make a living, right?”
“Jobs? More like lives,” he hissed back, pointing outside towards the parking lot.
“Mari E, as you call yourself, drives a fifteen year-old dented Honda and wears a weathered hoodie artificially inseminated with the smell of smoke and vanilla cologne. Mar-ISSA, on the other hand, drives a freaking Porsche and buys her eight-hundred-dollar Ferragamo shoes in Beverly Hills, which she wears to her Culver City art gallery!”
That is just a quick sample of the whip-crack dialogue in the book, which fizzles and sparks like electricity across terminals. Very soon Mari and Derek realise that the blackmailed judge is also connected to the unsolved murder of a French duel-passport student, Sophie Michaud, and the fate of two women journalists who investigated the case, one of whom is dead and the other missing.
Mari has her own crusade, which is related to her being shot while on a case twelve months or so previously. Her father resolved to take his own revenge on the European crime boss responsible, but neither has been seen since. She realises that if she can discover who killed Sophie, the rest of house of cards will come tumbling down. Big problem, though. She discovers that Sophie was not just one person. Yes, physically she was one body, but psychologically two separate beings lived under that particular roof, and were even known by different names – Sophie and Sasha. One was a dreamy and talented creative artist, while the other was a calculating sexual schemer who used information about potential blackmail victims with the ruthless logic of a criminal Marie Kondo.
Good crime writers can be lyrical when they need to be, and if there were any doubt that LIsa Towles is a genuine California Girl, this passage dispels it.
“There were some places where the quality of the light is always good, and others where it’s never quite right. Too bright to see an incoming text, too dark to find your keys in the bottom of your bag. Besides California, I’d lived in three other states, and somehow the light in LA had a quality that didn’t exist anywhere else. Sometimes the sun was so high and bright, it bled out all detail leaving a luminous silvery cloak over the sand and surf. Then at dusk, that same beachfront hides in climbing shadows, with only small details visible beneath the streetlamps. It was the unsinkable promise of light and dark that anchored me to this place, this stretch of rugged coastline with its seagulls and secrets.”
In the end, the blackmailer of the judge is located, and the killer of Sophie/Sasha is brought to justice, but with literally the last sentence, Lisa Towles poses another puzzle which will presumably be addressed in the next book. Hot House is everything a California PI novel should be. It has pace, great dialogue, totally credible characters and a pass-the-parcel mystery where Lisa Towles (right) has great fun describing how Ellwyn and Abernathy peel back the layers to get to the truth. Sure, the pair might not yet stand shoulder to shoulder with Marlowe, Spade and Archer, or even more modern characters like Bosch and Cole, but they have arrived, and something tells me they are here to stay.
Hot House is published by Indies United Publishing House, LLC, and will be available in the UK as a Kindle, audiobook and hardback from 15th June. The paperback was published in March. For my reviews of three earlier novels by Lisa Towles, just click on the cover images