Death’s Last Run by Robin Spano is the third Clare Vengel Undercover mystery (available May 1, 2013).
A young snowboarder is found dead on the Blackcomb Glacier, and Whistler police want to close the case as suicide. The victim’s mother, a U.S. senator, says her daughter would not, and did not, kill herself. At her request, the FBI sends in an undercover agent — Clare Vengel — to find out who might have killed Sacha and why. Dropped into a world of partying with ski bums and snow bunnies, Clare soon discovers that Sacha was involved in an LSD smuggling ring. Worse: the top cop in Whistler is in cahoots with the smugglers, and Clare’s cover is too precarious for comfort. As suspicion snowballs, can Clare solve the case before she’s buried alive?
Sounds like your standard mystery novel, right? You read that back cover copy, and you’re pretty sure you know how the story’s going to go: Straight-Laced, Line-Toeing Federal Agent goes undercover and is forced to consort with Big, Scary, Dangerous Drug-Dealers in order to help Incredibly Important U.S. Senator win campaign by proving that A) her daughter didn’t kill herself, and B) drugs are the root of all evil. The end.
But you’re wrong. Because Death’s Last Run by Robin Spano isn’t your standard mystery novel. I mean, yes, it’s a mystery novel – and a damn good one, at that – but for my money, nothing that defies expectation at every turn can be classified as “standard”.
For starters, Clare Vengel ain’t your standard mystery novel heroine. She’s not terribly sentimental (even when it comes to members of her own family); she’s a bit cold, and a bit hard, and she makes no bones about the fact that her career comes first:
Noah was silent for a moment. Then, “Roberta’s been trying to reach you.”
“Great.” Roberta wasn’t family, but she was the closest thing to an aunt or an older sister Clare had known. This would be about Clare’s dad. He might be dead, but worse — he might be clinging to life one more fucking time, and Clare would be a cold bitch for not dropping everything — her career included — and rushing to his side. “Did she say why she was calling?”
Noah sighed. “No. But you should call her. What if your dad dies and you haven’t made peace with him?”
Clare grabbed a corner of her work shirt and twisted it fiercely around her fingers. She tried to focus on where to look next in Jana’s room. Her father always did this — had a health crisis right when she was busy. “I have peace. I accept that my dad wants to die and I love him too much not to give him that freedom.”
“I’m sure he doesn’t want to die.”
“Nobody with emphysema smokes if they’re looking for fifty more years of health.”
She’s also about as far as you can get from a standard Federal agent. She’s snarky, headstrong, reckless, and has zero respect for authority:
“Are you stupid?” Clare’s contempt bubbled up to the surface. “You tell me to investigate Chopper — a drug smuggler who wants to sleep with me. I suggest sex, you call me a whore. I suggest drugs, you forbid it? Maybe you want me to hold Chopper’s hand and skip across the village cobblestones until he confesses that he murdered Sacha on the mountain?”
“No LSD, Clare. It’s not safe.”
“Sacha died on the ski hill drugged up on Ambien.” Clare knew she should tone down her derision if she wanted to change Amanda’s mind, but it was too hard to hold back. “Not on LSD at Chopper’s house. I think if he had it in for me, he’d find a way to kill me during one of our snowboarding lessons.”
“You want me to forbid you to take lessons from him?”
“See, now you’re not even being reasonable. Is this because I called you stupid?”
Amanda didn’t seem to know that answer.
“So what do you want me to do?”
“Gather information. Anything you can find without putting yourself at risk.”
“I’m an undercover FBI agent. I’m not paid to run from risk. Down in the States, they don’t childproof the job. It’s probably why they get better results.” Clare was pleased with herself for making her point without swearing.
And it’s not just Spano’s leading lady that sets Death’s Last Run apart from the pack; her more minor characters fly in the face of tradition, as well. Take the dead girl’s mother, Martha Westlake. Martha certainly isn’t your typical politician, let alone your typical Republican U.S. Senator (slash Presidential hopeful). She refuses to kiss the ass of the Religious Right:
“Look, Martha. I’ll admit it: I’m a conservative. The mere possibility of legalization makes me want to run screaming. With a cabinet position, of course, I could work on the policy with you — ensure that the changes would be good for my people.” He shoved the bite into his mouth, catching some meringue on his mustache. Martha wished she had a camera.
“I’m afraid I can’t play this game, Reverend. I believe I’ll be an excellent president. My daughter’s death did temporarily knock me down. But I’m back. With a fresh perspective that I think this country needs. I plan to look at every issue with clean eyes. And I’m not offering a cabinet post to anyone with religious affiliation.”
“That’s not very Republican.”
Martha resisted a snort. “The separation of church and state is one of the principles our country was founded upon. It’s the most Republican of Republican values.”
“You’ll forgive me, then, if I back Geoffrey Kearnes.”
“No.” Martha stood up. The noises in the restaurant were jarring now. She wanted to muzzle the screaming baby, clean up his face with a cheap napkin. “I won’t forgive you. But I’ll understand what that says about your character.”
And while her proposed drug policy is one of the most sensible and practical things to have ever come from the mouth of a candidate, it’s also political suicide and would make Nancy Reagan’s head explode:
The girl wrinkled her mouth. “How would legalizing drugs make the problem better? Doesn’t that mean that everyone will have them?”
“Everyone already does,” Martha said. “Right now, America is suffering more than it ever has from gang violence. Drug cartels — those are the people who bring the drugs into the country — and gangs who sell on the streets are powerful, mean organizations. To legalize the drug is to take away their power. Does this make sense?”
The girl shook her head.
“Okay, take your brother. You love him, right? But he’s doing drugs, and he’s run away.”
The girl nodded.
“If drugs were legal, they wouldn’t be associated with crime, right?”
“I don’t know. They’d still be bad.”
“Right. But they’d be bad like alcohol, or tobacco, or Krispy Kremes — they’d hurt your health, but they wouldn’t make you a criminal.”
“You wouldn’t be segregated from polite society — to the point where you had to run away and hang out with criminals. And the gangs would not be able to pull young people into their fold — people like your brother — to act as dealers or prostitutes to fund their addictions.”
Finally, there’s Richie Lebar, the ghetto-thug-turned-snowboarder who, yes, currently sells LSD, but has aspirations beyond that:
Richie glanced at Norris’ heavy wooden bookcase. Mostly it held police manuals and other boring-as-shit-looking hardcovers. But from a middle shelf, Zoe glanced out.
“You’re doing all this for her, huh? Because a cop’s salary can’t finance the kind of music education you think she should have?”
Norris scowled. “With all due respect, I don’t ask you your reasons for breaking the law.”
“I break the law because it’s what I grew up thinking I was good for. But I’m changing all that. I’m soon gonna be a legitimate businessman.”
Richie might be a Bad Guy, but he’s not a bad guy. Spano doesn’t minimize the serious nature of what Richie does for a living, but I love that her criminals aren’t all arch villains. Circumstance may have put Richie on the wrong side of the law, but he doesn’t want to stay there:
Richie roughed up Jana’s hair. She was on the floor in front of his armchair, snuggled against his legs. Maybe if his business plan worked out, he could ask her about moving in together. He knew she didn’t want a conventional rich guy who wore a suit to work and pretended to know about wines, but she wasn’t going to settle down with a drug dealer, either. Which was a good thing — Richie wanted a good life for her.
The unpredictable nature of Spano’s plot and characters both are a big part of what makes Death’s Last Run so compulsively readable. Spano capitalizes on the element of surprise like few authors, and she somehow manages to do it in a way that doesn’t seem cheap or flashy or unearned. Buy this book, buckle up, and enjoy the rollercoaster of a ride.
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Katrina Niidas Holm loves mysteries. She lives in Maine with her husband, fabulously talented pulp writer Chris F. Holm, and a noisy, noisy cat. She writes reviews for Crimespree Magazine and The Maine Suspect, and you can find her on Twitter.