Fresh Meat: Valley of Ashes by Cornelia Read

Valley of Ashes by Cornelia ReadValley of Ashes by Cornelia Read is the fourth in the Madeline Dare mystery series (available August 17, 2012).

Madeline Dare would eviscerate you with a sneer and a choice string of words I can’t print here if we compared her latest misadventures in Valley of Ashes, Cornelia Read’s fourth series installment, to that tired cliché “trial by fire.” There are trials. And there’s definitely fire. But Dare is anything but a tired cliché. Think more Laura Palmer of Twin Peaks fame whispering the title of that ill-fated prequel: “Fire Walk with Me.” Even though we don’t know it at the beginning of David Lynch’s film or Read’s novel, there’s a ticking clock for the characters, one that only becomes apparent in the book when it’s too late and impossible to stop. Time here is like a fire. It eats everything in its path and the only way is forward.

On the surface, there’s much to like about Boulder, Colorado, in 1995. The obvious bonus for Dare is that it’s not Syracuse. Frankly, anywhere that’s not Syracuse gets points. But Boulder seems like a good place for Dare, her husband, Dean, and their one-year-old twin daughters, India and Parrish. Dean has a job and Dare hopes the whole raising-two-kids-while-your-husband-works-and-doesn’t-help-out-much will iron itself out soon and she can get back into the writing world. Her first opportunity comes in the form of restaurant reviews for the Boulder New Times. It’s been so long since anyone offered Dare a job that the initial interview call goes less than smoothly:

“Is Madeline Dare available?” A man’s voice, Midwestern.

“This is she,” I said, keeping Parrish’s ass aloft as I groped blind for a fresh diaper.

“We want your eyeteeth,” said the guy.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Your eyeteeth,” he said. “We want them.”

“What’re you, like, a fetishist? Jesus, I’m changing my kid’s diaper here, trying not to goddamn inhale.”

The guy laughed. “This is Jon McNally at the Boulder New Times. Your cover letter claimed you’d give your eyeteeth to write for us?”

Fuck me.

With a chainsaw. Not gently.

I’d written that four months ago. But still . . .

“Wow,” I said, sliding the fresh diaper under Parrish’s ass. “I am now hugely deluged with an abject dump-truck-load of embarrassment.”

“Your writing clips are stellar, though.” He sounded amused.

But like a moth to a flame, Dare is drawn inexorably to the paper’s crime beat and McNally assigns her to shadow the local arson investigator, who’s looking into a series of suspicious fires around town. None of these writing gigs are mentioned to Dean since the state of their marriage is as precarious a structure as the real valley of ashes Fitzgerald cites in Gatsby, Dare and Dean standing in for the “men who move dimly and [are] already crumbling through the powdery air.” This doesn’t stop Dare from writing both her restaurant reviews and covering the increasing the number of fires popping up around Boulder.

There’s the slight problem of bringing one’s children to smoldering crime scenes as Dare becomes further embroiled in the arson investigation. She knows she shouldn’t put herself at risk the same way she has in the past (remember Syracuse?) because of her responsibility to India and Parrish yet her desire to ferret out the truth is an instinct not easily tamped down. But it’s one that can be swamped by the sheer overwhelming time commitment of juggling nearly single-handedly the responsibility of caring for twins in a town where she knows almost no one. Getting to know people, however, doesn’t seem to be Dean’s problem. Especially people of the female persuasion. Whether he’s out of town on a business trip or in the office working long hours, he’s drifting away.

What makes Read’s crime novels unique and difficult to pigeonhole, despite the genre’s plethora of subcategories, is the fact that the action doesn’t stop—and she doesn’t stop writing—when the murder is solved and the criminals are apprehended. Nor is everything tied up in tidy packages after the climax, with one labeled “arson inquiry” and another called “marriage.” That’s not how real life works. Nor is it how satisfying fiction is supposed to work. It’s definitely not how life has ever worked for Dare, whose whole world takes such a kick in the head in Valley that it’s hard to fathom how she’ll get up again. But, as readers of the series know from experience, she most certainly will. Eloquently telling off anyone who gets in her way.

See more coverage of new releases in our Fresh Meat series.

Jordan Foster grew up in a mystery bookstore in Portland, Oregon. She has a MFA in Fiction Writing from Columbia University, which she’s slowly paying off by writing about crime fiction for Publishers Weekly and Bookish. She’s back in Portland, where it’s nice and rainy and there are endless places to stash bodies. She tweets @jordanfoster13.

Read all of Jordan Foster’s posts for Criminal Element.

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