Poisonous by Allison Brennan is the third book in the Max Revere series, where Max answers the plea of a heartbroken and developmentally disabled stepbrother of a recently deceased girl, investigating an apparent suicide that looks more and more like murder.
A teenage girl is dead, and after more than a year, the case has gone nowhere. When Ivy Wallace’s stepbrother Tommy reaches out to Maxine “Max” Revere, a journalist-turned-television star, his simple plea for help touches her heart. Convinced that there’s a story in the cold case, Max heads for Corte Madera, California, with her best friend and colleague, David Kane, in search of answers and fodder for the next episode of her hit show, Maximum Exposure.
Max soon realizes there’s a lot more going on than a simple case of “Did she fall, or was she pushed?” in the case of Ivy’s death. It’s obvious to her that the only person who has truly mourned her passing is Tommy, who has been banished from the family because his stepmother thinks he’s the one who killed Ivy. There are a lot of suspects who look “good” for the crime, but Max didn’t get where she is by being satisfied with the superficial.
“I realized,” Max continued, “that part of my drive stems from the fact that I’m searching for answers for others because I have no answers for myself. I see that, I recognize it. I always knew it deep down, because I made everyone’s tragedies my tragedy. I picked cases I felt I could solve, and even when they weren’t easy, I didn’t let go. I couldn’t. Because if I couldn’t solve the problem, it would remind me that I can’t solve my own problems.
“And one of those problems is that I don’t belong. I force myself into situations, I dominate people, I push and push for answers until people simply give up fighting me. But that still doesn’t give me a place.”
Max tells David that she views herself as a “one-woman wrecking ball,” which gives her something in common with Ivy, who by all accounts was a cyber-bullying mean girl whose actions wreaked havoc on friends and family alike. She may or may not have been responsible for the suicide of a classmate, and that classmate’s brother is one of the people who became a “person of interest” to the local cops. “I don’t want him to be guilty,” Det. Grace Martin tells Max, which is more than she can say for Ivy’s ex-boyfriend Travis. Grace doesn’t honestly think Travis is guilty, but his smug entitlement annoys her so much that she enjoys yanking his chain.
Grace is a complex character, and her first meeting with Max is handled very well as the wary cop lays out the ground rules for the journalist’s investigation while an impatient Max mentally wishes the cop would quit repeating herself. That scene also fills in the larger picture of the crime, and at that point, readers will have no idea what really happened to Ivy Wallace. No one but Tommy seems to care whether she fell from a cliff by accident or design, and if it weren’t for Tommy, readers might feel the same way. Ivy was not a nice person. But Tommy’s a whole different story.
Tommy’s desire to find out what happened that fateful night is heartbreaking. “I wish we knew who hurt Ivy so Paula would let me be in the family again,” he tells his stepbrother Austin, who’s been sneaking around so his mother won’t find out he’s seeing his brother against her explicit orders. Tommy is developmentally disabled, and Austin, who loves him dearly, has been encouraging him to embrace independence and his dream of being a teacher. He sees how Tommy has “backslid” since becoming a pariah, reverting to his “simple” ways because his mother is so overprotective.
Their relationship is the emotional core of the story, and the complications of their family life resonate with Max, who seems to be surrounded by complications of the familial kind. On the one hand, she’s dealing with her lover’s reluctance to confront his manipulative ex-wife, and on the other, her friend David is seemingly unable to deal with the mother of the daughter he adores who uses her as a pawn to punish him for not being the man she thought he was.
Of the two men in Max’s life, we get the feeling that David is the most important, and we wonder if Max will ever find the love she missed in her childhood—even as David is drawn into her investigation in a very personal way. That’s the difference between him and Max. For David, solving cold cases a job; for Maxine, it’s always personal, it’s a calling. And that’s why, in this third installment of Allison Brennan’s Max Revere series, we go “all in” with her. Max likes to say she’s cynical, but deep inside, where it counts the most, she’s all heart.
Listen to an audio excerpt from Poisonous!
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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.