Blood Ties by Nicholas Guild is a thriller pitting San Francisco homicide detective Ellen Ridley against a serial killer who she suspects of being a hacker and codebreaker with the U.S. Navy (available May 12, 2015).
Women are everywhere in Blood Ties. It can sometimes seems as if women are totally MIA in crime thrillers, except as victims, and some would argue, in disproportionate numbers compared to males. I’m not sure that’s true in general, but I do know that it’s not true in this book.
The lead detective, Ellen Ridley, has worked her way up to Homicide (“the Holy Grail of police work”) after years in uniform. She is the first to connect three different homicides to a shadowy killer she and her partner call “Our Boy.”
Our Boy is a sadist. He’s a recreational killer and his victims are women. One of the victims is just 17, and Ellen first met her as a 13-year-old stealing canned tuna fish to survive because her mother abandoned her.
Sometimes writers of crime fiction—mindful of the criticism that women are under-represented both as authors and as characters—go overboard and create female protagonists who are a little too perfect. And that’s boring because it’s too simple. As the saying goes, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” Making female characters perfect takes away their humanity.
Ellen Ridley is not perfect. She doesn’t like her mother very much. And she doesn’t live in a perfect PC world. But she’s learned to live with it.
Even before she had put her Toyota into park, a cop was leaning over the door.
“You’ll have to move on, Miss. This is a police inquiry.
Without so much as glancing at him, she opened the door and, as she stepped outside, took out her badge case and lapped it over the breast pocket of her worn tweed jacket. Standing there, she was almost as tall as he was.
“I’m Ridley,” she answered.
The dispatchers did this to her every time, as if the gag would never wear thin. They would radio the scene, Inspector Ridley will be there in twenty minutes, and never use her first name.
Two years ago, during her early days on the homicide squad, she would have made an issue of it. She would have looked the man straight in the face, daring him to smile or say a word, daring him to look beyond the badge to the slender woman with short reddish-brown hair who appeared perfectly ready to break both his knees. But somewhere along the line she had made her peace with what the other women detectives referred to as the Nancy Drew syndrome. You can’t reform the world.
So Ellen picks her battles, saves her fighting for the victims. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t irritate her to have to deal with the same stupid attitudes day in and day out.
Even her partner Sam, who is on the same page with her when it comes to dealing with annoying witnesses, can’t resist a sexist dig when Ellen has a sudden thought.
“Where’s the photographer, Sam?”
“Say what?” He looked at her as if she had just lapsed into Norwegian. “He came with Shaw, so I guess he’s down with our mystery guest.”
“I think I’ll go tell him to take some shots of the crowd.”
“Why? You see a familiar face?”
“I don’t know.”
“Woman’s intuition?” He smiled, as if he had decided to indulge her in a whim, and then he turned to look back toward the trail down to the beach. “I’ll see if I can scare him up.”
Call it woman’s intuition or call it damn good police work, but Ellen is right on, and the murder case deepens with a connection to yet another woman, the newly elected Mayor of San Francisco. Ellen knows her own motives aren’t pure, that she’s letting the case become an obsession. She’s ashamed of her desire for vengeance, but she decides that it comes down to her “gut feeling that it would be impossible for her to remain icily objective and still contrive to be a human being.”
She is not thinking “like a woman,” but as a cop who is human. She is not approaching her job as a woman but she is a woman, and she does not react to events the same way her older, more seasoned, male partner does.
On the other hand, Sam has some advantages that Ellen doesn’t. He’s hooked into the “Old Boys Network.”
Meanwhile Sam checked in with the Men’s Club, that vast network of drinking buddies and guys in this or that department who owed him favors or just liked to gossip about whatever case or semipublic scandal was on at the moment. Ellen had her own list of contacts, but it was nothing compared with Sam’s. There was hardly anything in Official San Francisco that Sam either didn’t know or couldn’t find out about. All he needed was to shut himself up in the lieutenant’s deserted office and get on the phone.
But this case is going to take more than phone calls and networking. And that’s why Ellen starts thinking outside the box with the help of someone who really shouldn’t be involved in the investigation at all. And that brings up emotions that really have no place in police work either.
But it’s complicated being a woman and a cop.
And Nicholas Guild gets it right.
I’d like to see more of Ellen Ridley.
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Katherine Tomlinson is a former reporter who prefers making things up. She was editor of Astonishing Adventures Magazine and the publisher of Dark Valentine Magazine. She edited the charity anthology Nightfalls. Her dark fiction has appeared in Shotgun Honey, A Twist of Noir, Luna Station Quarterly, and Eaten Alive, as well as anthologies, including Weird Noir, Pulp Ink 2, Alt-Dead, Alt-Zombie, and the upcoming Grimm Futures, which she also edited. Her most recent collection of short stories is Suicide Blonde. She sees way too many movies.