Jan Brogan: Yesterday’s Fatal

After three books and three publishers, I hope the talented Jan Brogan has found a home with St. Martin’s. Her most recent novel, A Confidential Source, was technically the first Hallie Ahern novel, though the first one was really written for another publisher and the character had a different name. That publisher has since gone out of business, leaving Jan’s first books locked in a warehouse. So A Confidential Source was the first look many readers got at Hallie Ahern, a gambler in recovery who works at a newspaper in Providence, R.I., after leaving a Boston paper under something of a cloud. It’s not really necessary to read this series in order as Brogan works the relevant bits of Hallie’s past into the story so nothing is lost in translation.

Hallie is a new style mystery heroine – she’s far from perfect. Other recent writers like Denise Mina and Denise Hamilton (maybe Jan should change her name to Denise?) have ventured into the same territory. When I asked Denise Mina about it she said she was tired of reading about type A personalities, and wanted a heroine more people could relate to. I think of it another way: women mystery writers are venturing into male territory. After writers like Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, and Marcia Muller established series where the women were almost superhuman – V.I. Warshawski can take a beating and keep on ticking – I think women writers now feel secure enough of their place in the mystery constellation to allow their characters to have some real flaws, doubts, and insecurities, just like male characters do. (Think of Matt Scudder and Harry Bosch, just to name two). Hallie Ahern is a good example of this, as she often makes the wrong choices based on what her gambler’s instincts tell her, not on what her common sense intelligence might be telling her.

This is a well structured novel with an interesting story. “Yesterday’s Fatal” is a newspaper term – Hallie is writing up the story of a car accident she witnessed where the driver was found dead in her car. Later when she goes to the funeral of the dead woman she hears that an old woman who witnessed the accident along with her has recalled seeing another car, something Hallie is certain isn’t true. As she digs deeper, she finds evidence of an insurance fraud ring – car accidents that are carefully staged to get money out of the insurance companies. As Hallie doggedly follows up every lead she is both frustrated – no-one will go on record – and desperate, as the paper is being taken over by new ownership and layoffs are threatened. She feels getting the big story will save her job. And the more she digs, the more the tentacles of the story involve her personally and emotionally.

The way Brogan writes about Hallie she makes it seem like good investigative reporters are sensation junkies, and I think that must be true. What other kind of person would want to cover the news in Bagdad? I can’t imagine it myself, but that’s a reason to read a mystery (or any book) – to get an insight into why the characters behave the way they do, often in ways you wouldn’t behave yourself. Brogan makes it seems absolutely believable. One other bit of genius on her part is using the newspaper story Hallie writes to tie up the loose ends – it’s a change from the detective or cop in a room at the end of the book explaining the solution, and it ties up the threads in a refreshingly different way. Hallie is a complicated and interesting character; I like the fact that the books are dark (I’d put them squarely in the “noir” category) and I hope that Brogan doesn’t allow for too much happiness on Hallie’s part. It sets Hallie apart, and makes Brogan’s writing sparkle. This is a new series to take notice of.