Blood Orange by Karen Keskinen is a debut mystery featuring a contemporary female private eye in California (available June 4, 2013).
The sunniest places can harbor the darkest of secrets…
Santa Barbara private investigator Jaymie Zarlin has built her fledgling agency on finding missing people. Still struggling with the death of her troubled brother, who died in police custody, Jaymie is determined to help others in similar situations find their way home. Homicides are not in her repertoire.
When a beautiful young girl is raped and murdered on the night she appears in Santa Barbara's annual Solstice festival, Danny Armenta is blamed for the crimes and no one on the police force seems to be bothered that it all seems a little too convenient. Then Danny's aunt shows up at Jaymie Zarlin's office—it's just a few doors away from a woman who reads pet auras—demanding that she look into the crime because there's no way her nephew could have done what he's being accused of. Murder is way over Jaymie's paygrade but when she hears that Danny is schizophrenic, like her beloved brother Brodie, she agrees to take the case.
…She drew in a deep breath, let it out. “See, I raised all my brothers and sisters. I got six, one is dead. Alma, she was the little one, the sweet one. And then she fell in love with a mean guy and I couldn’t stop her. She had some really bad years. . . .”
The narrative was wandering. “Is this about him, Ms. Gutierrez? The mean guy?”
“Call me Gabi. No, that one is long gone, gracias a Dios,”she glowered. “Alma had three kids with him before she got free. Chuy, Aricela, and Danny. Danny’s the oldest, he’s eighteen.
My sister says he’s sick. To me he’s just crazy. Loco!” The word ricocheted around the small room like a bouncy ball.
I cleared my throat. Crazy, loco— I detested those words. “So this is about your nephew, who is mentally disabled?”
We all get by with a little help from our friends and that's doubly true for Jaymie, whose friends fortuitously include Mike Dawson, a sexy deputy sheriff and Zave, an even sexier lawyer with connections to Santa Barbara's upper crust. Jaymie's involved with both of them—shades of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum—and feeling guilty about it, which amuses Zave (rhymes with “suave”) no end and just pisses Mike off.
Jaymie's friends also include the reclusive Charlie, a hideously scarred burn victim who knew and liked Brodie, and new acquaintance Gabi, a house cleaner with connections to the case. Gabi is a force of nature and when she decides to organize Jaymie's office—bring fresh air and an endless supply of succulent Mexican pastries into the dingy rooms—there's not much Jaymie can do but stand back and let it happen. She tries her best to fend off Gabi's attempts at straightening up her messy love life as well, but realizes resistance is futile when Gabi dubs Mike “the big hot cop” and announces confidently that he's the man for Jaymie, whether she knows it or not.
Both Mike and Zave pull strings for Jaymie, who ends up convincing a wealthy old lady to put up Danny's million-dollar bail for reasons of her own. Celeste Delaney is nobody's fool and she's not sentimental either, as Jaymie finds out when she awkwardly attempts to commiserate with the woman's personal pain.
“Miss Delaney? I’m so sorry I had to come and ask you for this.” I reached forward and touched her skin-and-bones arm. “I’m sorry I’ve caused you to revisit your pain.”
“How very amusing.” She glared at me. “You think you know what goes on in my mind!”
Suddenly, I realized she was right. I didn’t understand this woman, not at all.
Friendships are important in this book but it's really family relationships that motivate the characters and drive the action. Everything comes back to family at some point and in some unexpected ways. Everyone involved in the murder of Lili Molina is either a brother or a sister or a mother or a son and all of them have their reasons for not sharing everything they know. Even Jaymie knows things she is reluctant to tell other people about, but secrets have a way of festering in the dark and erupting like an infected wound. The dead girl's sister wants revenge but will settle for justice until she learns one of those dark little secrets.
I rose to my feet, hoping to quiet the kid down. But Claudia wasn’t fazed by the nine or ten inches I had on her. “Back off, bitch! What are you doing bothering my mom?”
“Miss Molina, calm down. My name is Jaymie Zarlin. I’m a private investigator representing the Armenta family.”
“But—you never said that,” Teresa objected.
“I was just about to tell you,” I answered weakly.
“You’re full of it.” Claudia snarled. “Get the hell outta our house.” Alas, the snarl was kind of cute, like that of a kitten.
I didn’t want to embarrass the kid, but I had no intention of being bullied by a bantam chick. “There’s something I need to say to you, Miss Molina. First, please take a step back.”
“I ain’t ‘Miss Molina.’ And I ain’t taking no step back.” Claudia balled her fists and raised them. “You got something to—”
“Claudia,” her mother said wearily.
“You’re hurting me, Claudia.” There was misery now in Teresa Molina’s soft voice.
Each of the families whose lives intertwine in the narrative has hidden secrets and guilts they've buried, and in the course of Jayme's investigations, they all come to light. Why was the dead girl's mother fired from her job? What does Gabi hope her sister never finds out? What confession did the victim take to her grave? Even a dognapping case Jaymie's investigating is thick with family intrigue, and good intentions gone awry.
Murder rips more than one family apart in Blood Orange, and there are other events poised to separate family members. Mike, already half an orphan, is wrestling with the reality of his father's cancer and his father's fond hope that Jaymie and Mike will settle down together. When Jaymie tells Bill Dawson that she's sorry he has to deal “with this,” he shrugs it off and tells her that he's not sorry because he'll soon be with his wife Peggy. “I'll be joining her pretty quick now,” he said quietly. Bill covered my hand with his own. “Then I won't be lonely no more. It'll be about time.” Neither Mike nor Jaymie want to tell Bill that their relationship is “on hold” at the moment, and it breaks Jaymie's heart that she cannot commit to Mike as much as she wants to.
Mike and Jaymie's secret is harmless, but the other secrets swirling around the murder are not so benign and the killer soon kills again. Jaymie knows she could be the next victim if she's not careful but she feels she owes it to Danny and his family and even her brother, to uncover the truth.
By the time Jaymie has solved the crime, we feel like we're part of her family and we look forward to visiting her again—her and Mike and Zave and Gabi and Dex the dog and really, everyone else we've met. Blood Orange is a debut novel and clearly meant to be the first in a series. That's good news for readers.
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Katherine Tomlinson lives in Los Angeles in an apartment where her TBR pile has its own bookcase. She writes dark fiction but has a soft spot for cozy mysteries, heroic fantasy, and horror novels where only bad people get killed. She is the editor of the upcoming anthology Nightfalls.