Sometimes authors mistake a character’s personality with what kind of gun they carry, or the kind of music they listen to, or how they wear their hair. A novel’s plot may be solid, the concept may be clever, but the story doesn’t fire on all cylinders because the protagonist is as shallow as a tea tray.
If you’re a genre author, you’re always looking to hook up with that big signature character, who’s going to power a story by the sheer force of their personality. Someone who is empathetic and charismatic and complex, fierce and vulnerable. Somebody you’ll gladly accompany on a journey through one, two, three novels or more. Those are the characters you want to write.
You get the feeling Rachel Howzell Hall’s found her signature character in LA police detective Elouise ‘Lockjaw’ Norton, who hits the ground running in Land of Shadows;
Like all cops, the blurb loves a glazed donut:
Along the ever-changing border of gentrifying Los Angeles, a seventeen-year-old girl is found dead at a construction site, hanging in the closet of an unfinished condominium.
Homicide detective Elouise “Lou” Norton’s new partner Colin Taggert, fresh from the Colorado Springs police department, assumes it’s a teenage suicide. Lou isn’t buying the easy explanation. For one thing, the condo site is owned by Napoleon Crase, a self-made millionaire… and the man who may have murdered Lou’s missing sister thirty years ago.
As Lou investigates the death of Monique Darson, she uncovers undeniable links between the two cases. She is convinced that when she solves Monique’s case she will finally bring her lost sister home. But as she gets closer to the truth, she also gets closer to a violent killer. After all this time, can he be brought to justice… before Lou becomes his next victim?
So Lou Norton strides fully-formed into your head. An African-American woman who grew up in the grinding poverty of southwest LA, she’s married to a globe-trotting guy who works in computer games. Norton is no underdog, she’s got a 90% murder clear-up rate and if you patronize her, if you get on her wrong side, her sharp tongue will fell you like a taser. Howzell’s heroine is big and bold and in your face – and as fragile as a glass figurine.
Norton’s confident demeanour camouflages wrenching emotional scars, caused primarily by the disappearance of her older sister Tori when she was a kid. Tori’s disappearance has always gnawed at Elouise – she’s certain she knows who’s responsible, and her investigation into a girl’s murder on a building site gives her the opportunity to finally nail the guy. The subsequent procedural allows Howzell to strip away the layers of Norton’s bravado to expose the raw nerve underneath.
There’s lots to love in Land of Shadows. Howzell has totally nailed the voice. The dialogue, for starters, is to die for. There’s pages of funny back-and-forth between Norton and her friends and colleagues: ‘Looks like you were baptized in the River Beyonce this morning.’ She’s one of those characters you don’t mind spending time with when the investigation draws to a close at the end of a day. You really feel the weary pain of her relationship with her shitty husband – it’s no wonder she’s got a thing for saccharine fantasy romance novels.
The flashbacks to Tori’s disappearance are crisp and vivid, and don’t drag on the pace of the story, and the procedural aspect of Land Of Shadows – Norton’s investigation takes her across the concrete urban sprawl of Los Angeles, way off the tourist trail – is satisfying and often surprising.
Land of Shadows is written mostly in Norton’s first person – the narrative wobbles a bit when we’re invited into the head of the killer – and the melodramatic climax made me blink a bit, but Howzell undeniably delivers a satisfying emotional conclusion for her debutant detective.
The question is, with Norton’s emotional logjam resolved, what does Howzell Hall do next with her indefatigable heroine and team? I can quite imagine she’s got something riveting planned.
Thanks very much to Titan Books for the review copy of Land of Shadows. Rachel Howzell Hall gives us The Intel on Elouise Norton and her writing regime later in the week. I can’t wait for that.