Skies of Ash by Rachel Howzell Hall is the 2nd police procedural in the Detective Elouise Norton series set in Los Angeles where a deadly house fire looks a lot like murder (available May 19, 2015).
The luscious and wise cracking Detective Elouise Norton is in a personal quandary when this LAPD police procedural Skies of Ash opens. She’s trying to solve the murder of a mother, Juliet Chatman, as well as her daughter and son, nine and thirteen, who died in a fire in their home. But meanwhile, the detective is haunted with doubts about her husband and is carrying surveillance equipment to spy on him.
Her husband, Greg, is a serial adulterer, caught and forgiven at least three times by Lou, as Elouise is called by her friends. Despite all her suspicions, she’s still dreaming of having a child with him. It makes you wonder what else is going on in Lou’s personal life that she’s still clinging to this loser. An example of their relationship is demonstrated in the following sad conversation about decorating their Christmas tree:
“Maybe we can decorate the tree tonight,” I suggested.
“Probably have to work late,” Greg said. “You can start, though.”
I froze—who decorates a tree alone…
Returning to the murder case, although the Chatmans appeared to be the perfect family, Lou and her partner, Colin Taggert, launch an effort to prove or disprove the image. That’s when they discover that the son, Cody, seemingly hated his father and also bullied little girls, one in particular, who belonged to Chatman’s best friend. Cody is added to the list of possible suspects when a video reveals him sitting in a park and burning one of his father’s $1,000 blazers. Did he hate is father that much? So much so that he could also kill himself and the mother he loved? As Lou and Colin investigate and question neighbors and business colleges, they discover that Chatman, who deals in commodities, has unhappy clients. But Burning Man, a serial arsonist is still on the loose, and can’t be counted out.
The first-person narrative, in my opinion, the most difficult of voices in which to keep a reader’s interest, is perfect for the talented Rachel Howell Hall’s intelligent, quick-witted, and wise-cracking homicide detective:
My favorite LAPD unmarked Crown Vic, a light blue beauty that reeked of sweat, Drakkar Noir cologne, and dill pickles, awaited my arrival. It was parked next to Greg’s red and black motorbike and my silver Porsche Cayenne SUV, the automotive equivalent of a decathlon-competing supermodel who built rockets in her spare time.
Lou’s partner, Colin, is also entertaining and extremely handsome. Neither detective is reluctant to use his or her good looks to obtain information, like from this store clerk:
Colin pushed his aviators to the top of his golden head. He smiled, badged her, and crinkled those baby blues at her.
“Hey, Tressa. How ya doin’ today, darlin’?…”
“Your daddy a thief?”
She blinked, confused by the question. “Is my . . . huh?”
Colin smiled. “Is your daddy a thief? Cuz he stole the sparkle from the stars and put ’em in your eyes.”
Returning to Lou’s less than perfect marriage, Hall skillfully allows her protagonist to describe her own beauty while alluding to a major fault in her disintegrating marriage:
On the way to the garage, we walked past his home office, a grotto filled with video-game boxes piled atop art books perched against tubs of markers, pencils, and empty Gatorade bottles. I noticed on his drawing table a charcoal sketch of a busty, brown-skinned female with long, windswept hair, a badge on her giant left boob, and a big-ass cannon on her ultra curvy hip.
“Look familiar?” Greg asked, standing behind me. “Pretty good, huh?”
My skin flushed—I was staring at me, reimagined and hypersexualized for teenage boys and their gamer dads. The complexity of Lou had been rendered to boobs, hair, and gun.
As the story unfolds, we learn that Lou’s from the tough side of town, the ghetto, the “Jungle,” and while dealing with her dysfunctional marriage and the Chatman murder case, she’s also suffering from the tragic loss of her older sister.
I worked this part of Los Angeles and visited here more than my own home. Twenty-five years ago, a man named Max Crase had murdered my big sister, Victoria, at a liquor store right down that street. Crase had later helped build fancy condominiums on that street over there. Six months ago, he murdered another seventeen-year-old girl as well as her sister, a case—my case—that still haunted me.
Lou’s suspicions of Christopher Chatman continue to grow. When two notes received by Julia Chatman are discovered, two suspects other than Christopher Chatman become prominent. As a reader, I wondered could Christopher Chatman have done such a gruesome thing? Set fire to his own home to burn his own children alive? The story’s intrigue never let up. A cryptic 911 call made by Julia Chatman propels the story from the beginning. But you’ll have to wait to find out what was said in the 911 call.
Hall keeps you reading on several levels, and you need to find out what happens next.
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Dorothy H. Hayes is the author of Murder at the P&Z and Broken Window from Mainly Murder Press. She’s been known to blog at Women of Mystery.