Jan Brogan’s second novel featuring reporter Hallie Ahern finds Hallie making a fresh start in the “small, crazy state” of Rhode Island, at the Providence Chronicle. She’s come down from the heights of the Boston Globe after blowing a big story and is in recovery from a substance abuse problem. Her apartment is crappy, her best friend is her twelve step partner, she owes money to her mother, and the super ambitious, intelligent Hallie hates her new job. In a typical female written mystery novel, this would be a set up for a Cinderella style change, where the heroine uses her guts and brains to pull herself out of her hole. It might include some other memorable or eccentric female friends and even a cat. Author Jan Brogan obviously doesn’t know these “rules” though, and she delivers a very “noir” novel with a heroine who makes so many wrong choices and decisions it’s hard to keep up.
The book opens with a bang – Hallie is in her corner convenience market buying a lottery scratch ticket – when the owner, Barry Mazursky, is gunned down while she’s in another part of the store. Hallie isn’t a witness but had not only been fond of Barry, but had also gotten a look at the other people in the store right before the shooting. When Hallie goes into work to write a first person account of what happened as well as a sentimental memorial piece about the Barry she felt she knew, both Barry’s secrets and Hallie’s life begin to unravel. Hallie, an addictive personality in general, had been addicted to calling in to a semi sleazy late night radio talk show; when the host of the talk show gives her a tip she follows up on it, citing him as her “confidential source”. Everything seems to go wrong after that. To research gambling, Hallie finds herself hooked; she trusts the wrong people and doesn’t trust the right ones; and worst of all her story has such a huge factual hole in it that it sends her back to spelling-bee duty and deeper into debt. She couldn’t be more depressed when she once again becomes a part of the story she was only wanting to report.
Hallie’s ambition frequently gets in her way, but it also makes her a believable, if not always likable, character. This is a smart book with several twists and a really compelling ending that had me turning pages pretty quickly. The details of the reporters’ life are very well done (and Brogan is herself a reporter) as are the details of life in Providence. She gives the city a personality that would do regional masters like Estleman or Lippman proud. With that as a caveat, I found myself sometimes distracted by the details and wanted more for Hallie personally, but that just proves that Brogan’s a good writer: Hallie reads like a real person, and you end up wanting to know more about her. This is a distinctive and dark book, maybe not for the squeamish (Brogan can be a bit ruthless), but very well done and deserving of a closer look.