Book Review: Red Flags by Lisa Black

Lisa Black's Red Flags is a taut thriller featuring two forensic scientists untangling a political scandal involving kidnapped children. Here's Doreen Sheridan's review!

When FBI Evidence Response Team analyst Dr Ellie Carr is called in to help investigate a kidnapping case, the last thing she expects is for the missing child to belong to her own estranged cousin, Becca Carlisle. The two girls had once been very close as pre-teens growing up together in West Virginia, but fell out of contact after Ellie moved away. Ellie is surprised to find that Becca is now a sleek DC lobbyist, a far cry from the temperamental kid she’d once known. For all that Becca has changed, though, Ellie can still see shades of the emotional child in the mother now grieving over the disappearance of Mason, her infant son.

While Ellie’s strong sense of family ensures she wants to be there for Becca, she also knows that this same personal connection is more than ample reason for her to recuse herself from the case. With the rest of the ERT preoccupied with other cases in the DC vicinity, however, she’s the only technician they have available. Besides, the FBI agents in charge want her to stay. She’s well aware this is a poisoned chalice, as she confides in her ex-husband and soon-to-be boss, Adam, who doesn’t quite see it the way she does:

“Huh,” Adam said. “That’s kinda cool.”

 

“Not really. I would have been okay to stay here as a family member only, but by leaving me in my official capacity, they’re setting me up as either spy or scapegoat. Becca and [her husband] Hunter are automatically suspects, so I can be their inside man. They solve it, then it’s ‘Yay, FBI!’ If they don’t, they can let everyone assume it’s because I helped Becca cover it up, or simply didn’t give it my all. If [Agent] Tyler and his partner–guy named Alvarez–want to, they can ruin my reputation just to get their own supervisors off their backs.”

Regardless of why she’s being allowed to stay on, she’s determined to do the best job she can while also providing emotional support for her cousin. She’s thus taken aback when Becca’s husband decides to call in a private company to “assist” her efforts. 

The Locard Institute, named after the French founding father of forensic science, has facilities that aren’t quite as backlogged as the FBI’s and other law enforcement labs too often are, so can accelerate research for their usually wealthy clients. While Ellie does her best to be cordial, she can’t help but feel somewhat territorial when she finally does meet Dr Rachael Davies, the pathologist the Institute sends to help the Carlisles look into Mason’s kidnapping. Rachael does her best to mitigate the tension, even inviting Ellie for a tour of the Institute’s state-of-the-art facilities:

She pointed out a small sign off the path to the left that read: SITE 1. “We have two ‘body farm’ type digs, to give our students practice with buried bodies.”

 

“Of course you do,” Eliie said, and chuckled to herself for some reason.

 

“Depending on the class and how long it runs, they might come out twice a day to observe the changes due to decomposition, or they might have to dig one up to get some experience in excavation and documenting an excavation.”

 

“Very nice,” Ellie said. “Okay, that sounds weird to say.”

 

“But true.”

The two women slowly bond not only in their shared, and admittedly unusual, professional interests but also in their determination to find Mason and bring him safely home. But when other children are abducted, all of them the offspring of Hunter’s co-workers, it quickly becomes a race against time to discover who’s behind all this and to stop them before any innocent children are hurt or worse.

While Red Flags is a forensic thriller, it’s also a very clever fair-play mystery, with a deeply satisfying ending. I really enjoyed the way Lisa Black layers the interconnecting mysteries here, even as she sensitively explores Ellie and Rachael’s complicated family lives and how those affect their reactions to Mason’s kidnapping. I especially loved how Ellie and Rachael’s friendship develops, from a realistic and understandable professional standoffishness to the warmth they begin to show as they learn not only to work together but to rely on one another. This series debut also subtly hinted at future romances for each woman, balancing their personal stories perfectly with the suspenseful action. I’m so looking forward to enjoying more of Ellie and Rachael’s adventures together, and can’t wait to read what Ms Black writes next.

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