Book Review: What Harms You by Lisa Black
Dr. Ellie Carr has taken a leap of faith, quitting her job with the FBI following her divorce and going to work for the prestigious Locard Institute instead. She’s also somewhat precipitously bought a house close to the institute, an hour’s drive away from her former home in Washington DC. While she’s still a little anxious about her new home, she’s greatly excited to be able to work for her recently made but already fast friend Dr. Rachael Davies.
Her first day begins less than auspiciously when the key card that’s supposed to allow her access into the building doesn’t work. She can’t get into her office either, as it’s kept securely locked by the woman she’ll be replacing, controversial crime analyst Dr. Barbara Wright. Another new colleague, Hector Azores, offers her his office as a temporary place to store her stuff while she goes in search of the lecture halls she’ll be teaching in later that day. While the Locard Institute specializes in speedy forensic analysis for wealthy, influential clients, it also offers Crime Scene Investigation certifications for members of law enforcement looking to continue their professional educations. Ellie, like most of the other investigators employed by Locard, is expected to help conduct both.
Ellie discovers that Hector’s less-than-flattering description of Barbara is surprisingly accurate, as Ellie sneaks in to catch the end of the other woman’s lecture. Barbara’s specialty is in developing resources to identify medications present in DNA samples. She believes that this will help law enforcement narrow down their suspect pool, though Ellie isn’t sure that this use isn’t somehow a violation of the patient’s privacy rights enshrined in HIPAA. Barbara seems pretty certain of her own bright future, however, as she plans to leave Locard for more profitable ventures in a matter of days.
So it’s a shock to Ellie when she discovers Barbara dead in a supply closet shortly after the lecture. The other woman seems to have suffered from a heart attack before knocking over and landing in a jar of hydrochloric acid. It’s an unusual death, but not one entirely out of the realm of possibility. While Ellie and Rachael have their concerns, they don’t actually suspect foul play… until one of their latest batch of students is found strangled to death on the grounds of the institute itself. Neither woman believes in coincidences, but finding evidence at the second crime scene that could only have come from Barbara’s confirms a grisly connection.
The FBI, including Ellie’s ex, is called in. He can’t resist needling her:
“Let me get this straight. You start working here, and two people die.”
“It sounds bad when you say it like that.” She tried to keep the grin on her face, and knew she failed. It did disturb her. Of course the two dead women had nothing to do with Ellie–she didn’t believe in curses–but she had always responded to the victims’ crime scenes. They weren’t supposed to come to her. “And the one yesterday was an accident.”
She felt her eyes narrow. “What does that mean?”
“Ask your new boss.”
Her new boss, Rachael, has already begun running forensics on the scene of Barbara’s death, even before it was linked to the student’s homicide. Having the Locard Institute’s incredible resources at her disposal means she can do everything herself–or at worst with the help of her co-workers–instead of waiting for overburdened, underfunded state resources to finally get back to her. What she learns leads her to believe that there may be a serial killer in their midst. Can she and Ellie figure out who it is, and more importantly, prevent more deaths?
The second procedural in the Locard Institute series is smart and sensitive, delving into the thoughts of both of our heroines as they struggle to make sense of the murders. Solving the cases becomes a huge priority, not only because anyone could be next but because the entire reputation of the institute is now on the line. Ellie worries about the loss of her safety net after taking such an enormous leap of faith, but Rachael has a bigger picture in mind, as she confers with the Institute’s director:
All the events of the day caught up with her in one moment, and she sat on the counter along the windows–a cozy spot during cold weeks, with the radiator humming below it. Today, it didn’t warm her. The private clients, the ones with deep pockets and delicate problems and an abhorrence of publicity in all forms, would not find a campus murder titillating. She tried to think of something comforting to say and came up short. [The director] was right. They could all be out of their jobs soon, and the Locard–this amazing, beautiful experiment–could be abandoned to decay alone in the forest.
I really appreciated Lisa Black’s balanced consideration not only of law enforcement and medical ethics but also of life in modern-day Saudi Arabia, which is an important plot point in this meticulously scripted novel. What Harms You is a terrific, CSI procedural that takes a thoughtful, even-handed view of life and crime-fighting in the 21st century, balancing hot-button topics with common sense approaches. The hint as to greater mysteries in Ellie’s past was also tantalizing. I’m really looking forward to reading more of this intriguing series.