Keeping Secrets by Cathi Stoler is the second novel in the Laurel and Helen New York Mystery series, in which the reporter and private eye team up to help a young women in fear of her life (available November 1, 2013).
Laurel Imperiole is an investigative journalist working for Women Now magazine, headquartered in New York City. When she receives a disturbing e-mail from a reader, Anne Ellsworth, she feels duty bound to help. Anne is a lonely young woman who suspects that her fiance, David Adams, isn’t all that he seems to be. Laurel senses the opportunity to write an article on how women in relationships can tread the fine line of respecting their partners’ privacy while still protecting themselves in an age of rampant identity theft, contrasting Anne’s situation with her own.
Laurel herself has rebounded hard into a six-month relationship with the very private Matt Kuhn, whom she thinks she’s falling in love with. She believes he’ll serve as a good complement to Anne’s duplicitous fiance. With this in mind, she gives Anne solid advice on how to dissociate herself from David, but finds Matt oddly hostile to her story idea. And when Laurel later sees Matt in the city, despite his claim of being in Italy, she turns to the only person she thinks will understand her fears and, better still, know what to do about them.
This person is the redoubtable private investigator Helen McCorkendale, an older woman who happens to be dating Laurel’s father, Mike. She welcomes Laurel’s concerns as a refreshing break from the insurance investigation her old friend and ex-lover, Joe Santangelo, has asked her to help his company with. The case has led Helen unsettlingly close to the Mafia, so a simple background check seems like something quick and easy to close while she distances herself from the insurance case.
But then Anne disappears, leaving a letter in her abandoned car for Laurel, and the police get involved. This wouldn’t be so bad if the guy in charge of the investigation wasn’t Aaron Gerrard, a cop with whom Laurel had a disastrous break-up immediately before meeting Matt.
Aaron is critical of Laurel's involvement with the case, but she defends herself when he accuses her of meddling:
“Anne’s request for help really got to me,“ Laurel said. “I’ve been thinking about how easily people can be fooled, how simple it is for them to change or hide their identities. People lie every day—on job applications, to their spouses, about where they went to school. The list is endless.” The thought Aaron would include her on that list of liars flew across her mind. She shrugged it away. “I decided to do a story about it while helping her at the same time. I probably should have cleared it with [my editor] first. It will benefit our readers. I really believe that.”
Laurel is warm-hearted and impulsive, often acting without thinking things through, but always because she thinks she’s doing what’s right. Fortunately for her, Helen is more level-headed, if just as adventurous. Helen might be older and more sensible, but she’s also endearingly vain, taking umbrage at a cabbie’s polite use of the word “ma’am” in reference to her. Later, when Helen finds herself surprised in a spot of breaking and entering, she escapes first to the rooftop, then:
Helen kept low and slid on her stomach, covering her black sweater and pants with dirt. She quietly crossed the low parapet separating the two loft buildings and wiggled over to the ladder leading to its fire escape a few feet away. She sat up and slid her legs over the building’s edge, easing her way down. When she reached the fire escape, she descended slowly, taking care to avoid the building’s windows. At the second story, she reached across from her perch to a chain link fence that enclosed the building’s yard from the open space next to it. She climbed over the fence, shimmied down a few more feet, then jumped to the earth below.
She landed on the solid ground of a weed-filled vacant lot. Moving toward a corner of the fence separated from its retaining post, Helen separated it farther and eased her way through. Once she was out on Lafayette Street, she brushed herself off, straightened her clothes, and walked toward the corner. Breathing a sigh of relief, she thought, Let’s see if any old ma’am can do that.
It’s great to read a contemporary mystery with two strong female leads who are friends without being sidekicks to one another. Cathi Stoler writes about the problems faced by modern women sympathetically, but in a way that also reminds us that certain dilemmas are timeless. The burgeoning love triangle between Laurel, Matt and Aaron, for example, is echoed in Helen’s navigation of her own tricky relationships with Mike and Joe. The romances are just as colorful as the mysteries unraveled here, and just as satisfyingly resolved.
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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.
Read all posts by Doreen Sheridan for Criminal Element.