Book Review: Hello, Transcriber by Hannah Morrissey
The winters in Black Harbor, Wisconsin, are unforgiving. Aspiring writer Hazel Greenlee and her husband, Tommy, have moved “down” to Black Harbor for work—which Hazel has found as a transcriber for the Black Harbor Police Department. Every night, she transcribes recorded reports from police officers. The reports cover everything from drug deals to homicides.
In her first week, Hazel pulls a suicide report, which is bad enough, but that report is quickly eclipsed with the suspicious death of a ten year old boy found in a dumpster. The boy has apparently overdosed. He is missing a finger. And, to make matters more personal, Hazel shares a duplex with one of the crime’s main suspects. Soon Hazel finds herself entangled in the investigation and the lead investigator, Nikolai Kole.
Hello, Transcriber is the darkly atmospheric debut from Hannah Morrissey, who was herself a police transcriber. Morrissey’s experience adds a layer of verisimilitude to her sometimes painfully real story. There’s a grittiness to Black Harbor and its inhabitants that feels like it could be Anywhere, USA—with characters suffering addictions, work troubles, and suffocating relationships.
One of the key elements Morrissey uses to put the reader in the thick of things is showing Hazel at work. Hazel has access to all of the nitty-gritty details from the police reports, which is interesting in and of itself. But it’s also fun to imagine a woman who can type 111 words per minute keeping up with the flow from the police officers’ microphones. The sections with Hazel’s transcribing put the reader right in the quiet, dark room with her. It’s just her and the story.
“The victim was identified as Jordan McAllister, comma, who lived in the lower level of Tyler Krejark’s building, period. I made my way behind the apartment structure, comma, to a parking lot where I observed a dumpster, period. Investigator Riley and Officer Liebowitz were present, comma, along with ME Winthrop, period. I peered inside the bin, comma, and observed, comma, lying on top of the trash, comma, a male who appeared to be approximately eight to ten years old, period. The victim was clothed in pajamas, comma, and from the waist down, comma, the body was encased in a Spider-Man sleeping bag, period. There was a white foam around his mouth, comma, which is often seen in drug overdoses, period. However, the victim’s left pinky finger had been snapped off, period. It should be noted, comma, that the ME determined this to have occurred post mortem, comma, as there was no blood surrounding the wound, period. Next paragraph.”
I feel my mouth fall open as Investigator Kole walks me through the scene. My insides twist at the mention of the Spider-Man sleeping bag; of all the details, that’s the one that makes me catch my breath, even as he goes on to describe the stiffness of the body. Eyes like a doll’s Frost on his lips. A dark red-rimmed cabity where a finger was no longer attached.
The reports reflect the seedy underbelly of humanity, which Morrissey doesn’t shy away from at any point in the narrative. Every character—from the victims, to the suspects, to lead investigator Nikolai Kole, to Hazel herself—are flawed. Deeply.
The ten-year-old boy’s death is tied to a drug dealer known on the Black Harbor streets as Candy Man. Then another young woman dies, also of an overdose. The victims and the reports keep piling up.
Then Hazel and Nikolai begin to form a connection during the course of the investigation, and it sure feels like a bad idea.
Yeah, Hazel’s marriage is falling apart and she is not sexually satisfied with her abusive spouse. So, she’s willing to cross some lines to connect with someone. But the transcriber and the investigator work together too, and there are rumors Nikolai makes a habit of “connecting” with women, including his confidential informants. He might not be the best choice.
Especially when their first time connecting is at a crime scene.
He stands between my knees and pulls me closer to him. I slide my hands down the valley of his chest, tugging at the bottom of his thermal shirt to reveal the tops of a v-cut, the rest of which disappears into his jeans. He scoops his hands under my bottom and lifts me up, kissing my neck as I fight my way out of my jacket, when suddenly, I notice a fissure in the wall behind him. I squint, trying to make out what it is. He sets me down and leans slightly away, trying to read my face. “What’s wrong?” And then his eyes widen as in the mirror, he sees it too…
I hop off my perch and meet him on the floor, hovering over him as he dumps the contents of the bag into the sink. Dozens of pill bottles spill into a pile, the capsules rattling inside. A glass pipe clanks against the faucet. There are razors and tobacco paper, too; plastic baggies containing pills and powder.
No one is innocent in this novel. Everyone makes questionable choices, which makes the that much more intriguing. It’s hard to predict who will do the right thing in the moment, or whether the “right thing” is the “moral thing.” Will this cop plant evidence? Should the evidence be planted? Is this informant telling the truth or are they covering for something/someone? Is it okay to break a promise to one person to help another person?
Hello, Transcriber is an atmospheric, gritty look into the human nature of small-town crime. Morrissey brings the reader into the icy northern Wisconsin world and pulls back the curtain on deep, dark human motivations. You will definitely need hot chocolate (Nikolai’s morning drink!) and a warm blanket for this one.