Sunday, February 28, 2021

Series Review: Cass Raines, Private Eye

If there's one common thread I've seen among recent reader chatter is that between 2020 and the Pandemic many of us have turned to comfort reads. Comfort reads, for me, often carry a heavy dose of nostalgia with them - which helps explain why I am trash for female private detectives. I got hooked on reading through mysteries and spent many trips to the public library as a kid reading Nancy Drew and graduating to Sue Grafton and Marcia Muller.  So when I needed some female private eyes in my reading, @JayneChanger stepped in to recommend Broken Places by Tracy Clark - the first book in an #ownvoices series about a Black female Chicago PD detective who goes private.  I have since read all three books in the series (to date), with the fourth due out in late June 2021.  It's a low gore mystery series, with a light romance that comes into play, so I think romance readers may dig it - assuming of course you can get past the series set-up. 

Broken Places opens with Cass still on the Chicago PD. Cassandra "Cass" Raines and her partner are in pursuit of a suspect, a gang member, that leads to a Chicago rooftop.  The young Black man has a gun.  Cass is this close to diffusing the situation, talking the kid down, when "back-up" shows up. An incompetent bungler who is juiced in thanks to departmental and family connections. Next thing you know, Cass takes a bullet and the kid is dead.  This deeply affects Cass and the ensuing internal investigation goes just about the way you'd expect.  Cass turns in her badge and goes private.

Fast forward, and Cass gets a visit from Father Ray "Pop" Heaton. After her mother died of cancer when Cass was young, her father took off - leaving her in the care of her loving grandparents.  Pop stepped in to fill the void left by her father.  There's a been a recent spat of vandalism at the church and while Pop keeps brushing it off as no big deal - he still asks Cass to snoop around.  Before she can though Father Ray is found dead in the chapel - and who should be the lead detective on the case?  Yeah, the juiced-in incompetent bungler.  Pop's church is in a rough neighborhood so he's already half closed the case as a junkie robbery attempt gone wrong.  Yeah, this doesn't fly for Cass - Pop was family.  She's on the case, pissing off half the Chicago PD along the way.

This was a good, solid start to the series.  Cass was a little slow on the uptake during the final chapters, but a minor quibble.  I loved the Chicago setting and the cast of secondary characters surrounding Cass - including tenants in the apartment building she inherited from her grandparents, her BFF (a nun from a raucous Irish Catholic family), her former partner, and a childhood BFF now out of prison and determined to stay out.  Final Grade = B+

Borrowed Time has so far been the weak link in the series, but it's still an entertaining read. Business has been slow, and Cass has been paying the bills by delivering summonses to all manner of low-life. She's ready for a challenge.  She just didn't expect it from Jung Byson, her local diner's delivery guy who is a slacker / hippie type who likes to party.  His friend, Tim Ayers, a wealthy son of a prominent Chicago family, was found dead floating in Lake Michigan.  Police are calling it a suicide. Jung thinks Tim was murdered.  Jung is flaky as hell, but he's got money for her retainer, so Cass starts digging.  She immediately finds out her new client has not been forthcoming.  Namely, Tim was terminally ill.  Suicide seems more than plausible.  But one thing bothers Cass - namely there were no finger prints found on the yacht where Tim was living and from whence he jumped.  That smells hinky AF. Naturally the more Cass starts poking the more she runs afoul of the Ayers family and the Chicago PD. 

The story hinges on a pretty flimsy premise - namely that a private investigator would take on a case, and continue working on it, when the client "conveniently" keeps omitting information and lying by omission.  I had a hard time reconciling this, even though the mystery behind Tim's death is a good one.  But I enjoyed the time spent with Cass, revisiting Chicago and the menagerie of secondary characters.  Final Grade = B- 

What You Don't See might be my favorite, mostly because the case Cass is working on is once again personal.  Cass's former partner, Ben Mickerson, has been moonlighting as security for Vonda Allen - a magazine editor and local celebrity who is about to get her own syndicated talk show.  Someone has been sending her anonymous poison pen letters. Ben convinces Vonda's team to hire on Cass for an upcoming book tour since nobody (including Vonda) wants the cops involved.  Cass really doesn't want the job. Vonda has a reputation for being a mega-bitch diva (boy howdy!) but this is Ben asking.  It soon becomes apparent just how real the threat is though when Ben is stabbed while on duty.  Vonda's throwing up road-blocks and once again Cass gets on the wrong side of the Chicago PD - but Ben is family.  Cass tenaciously starts digging and unearths a whole mess of ugly skeletons in Vonda's closet.

Like Borrowed Time, Cass should have stayed far away from this case - but it's Ben asking, so it's an explanation that works for me.  Also, Vonda Allen is a piece of work yo!  Parts of the mystery are fairly obvious (right around the time Ben gets stabbed), but Clark writes it high-octane and it makes for a great finish.  Vonda's orbit is poisonous, with victims dropping left and right.  I finished this one and immediately went looking to see how long I was going to have to wait for Book 4.  Final Grade = B+

There's a number of dead bodies that have dropped so far in this series, but none of it graphically depicted (OK, so there's one dismembered body, but there aren't multiple gleeful pages written about a serial killer's work, for example).  But the event that leads to Cass quitting Chicago PD, is tough to read - especially in light of recent events. It's how Clark has blended the Chicago PD and the characters still in uniform that I've found compelling.  Also, the larger cast surrounding Cass is dynamite.  It's very Found Family.  Cass even gets a romance, a police detective who first appears in Book 1, manages to open the door a crack in Book 2, and by Book 3 they're "an item."  A new, burgeoning item, but an item nonetheless.

If you're a mystery fan, this is a series worth a look.  While Clark has won some awards for this series, it's a series still in it's infancy (only 3 books so far!).  Here's hoping her audience continues to grow because I'm hooked now and need more.


Liz Mc2 said...

Perfect timing with this review! This kind of series is my reading jam right now and I needed something new to start. Even better, my library had the first one available in audio. Thanks, Wendy (and library elves)!

Kristie (J) said...

I'm looking this year to break into other genres and "a low gore mystery series, with a light romance that comes into play" sounds like something I could get into. I will give this series a look-see.

Dorine said...

I've been dipping my toes in mysteries lately. Like you, I read the Nancy Drew series as a kid, but ended up more hooked on Little House on the Prairie. Kinda explains my obsession with historicals. I was once a horror reader as well, so I've fallen in love with thrillers. But I like your mention of the less gore in this series, because that's what stops my reading. I'll check this out as I really love female detection stories.

Wendy said...

Liz: I actually listened to the first three on audio and enjoyed them in that format. Upcoming Book 4 is on Netgalley, so I scored it early - I just need to get past "obligation reading" first.

Kristie: You've got me checking prices now LOL. The first book is available for a very good price right now in the US - but alas, not Canada :(

I read all over the gore spectrum. This series is violent but even the dismembered body that turns up in Book 2 (?) didn't feel overly graphic to me. It's not blood, guts and serial killers at any rate.

Dorine: LOL! Yeah, the Little House obsession explains quite a bit ;) I would say the gore level in this series is on par with your average thriller.