****The Breaks

streetwalker, San Francisco

(photo: David Selsky, creative commons license)

By Eden Sharp – In the hardboiled thriller The Breaks, readers are introduced to two engaging and memorable characters—private investigator Angela McGlynn and her sometime associate John Knox. McGlynn is self-assured and sassy, a computer hacking whiz and martial arts expert, not above using her attractiveness to lure bad guys into compromising positions. Knox is a recently discharged U.S. Marine with PTSD haunted by his Afghanistan experiences. McGlynn takes on Knox as a favor to a friend, who thinks the man needs something to occupy him, a way to feel useful again, and, as the case she’s embarking on turns darker and more dangerous, she’s damn glad to have him at her side.

This thriller takes place in San Francisco, where you can go from exclusive neighborhood to dangerous gang territory in a few steps. “The worst parts were only blocks away from the tourist traps and not marked on the map. It was easy to stray off track.” All strata of society are compressed on that small peninsula, and McGlynn and Knox stray way off track in this complex story, presented in short scenes from multiple points of view. McGlynn narrates in the first person, keeping her in the center of the action, but the scenes from Knox and others are third-person. There are quite a few characters to keep in your head, and I often had to use the search function to find the first mention of a name to place them.

Trouble begins when a retired suburban high school teacher asks McGlynn to find his teenage daughter. She’s run away from home, missing two weeks, and the police aren’t doing much. About all the father can tell McGlynn about the girl’s disappearance is that she had a serious cocaine habit and threatened to turn to prostitution to support it. Through her contacts in the community of working girls, McGlynn finds who the girl has been running with.

McGlynn suspects the girl was snatched because of an identity mix-up. She was carrying the stolen phone and I.D. of the daughter of a big-time narcotics smuggler. The police are trying to pull off an ambitious sting operation against him. But as they move forward, they keep tripping over McGlynn and Knox, and they aren’t happy.

Meanwhile, apart from her paying work for clients like the distraught dad, McGlynn uses her hacking skills to expose child pornographers. She’s tracked down a big-time seller of these images who lives in the city and is scheming to put him out of business.

These three skeins of criminality and investigation inevitably become tangled, which makes for a challenging guessing game among McGlynn, Knox, the cops, and the reader. Sharp has a talent for energetic prose that keeps this complicated story moving and the ability to put her characters in credible danger. The choreography of the final showdown scene is a little confusing, though the outcome is clear.

Ironically, I learned more about Knox’s character and motivations than McGlynn’s, despite the first-person narration. It makes for an interesting switch in expectations that McGlynn reacts to situations (after sex, in dangerous straits) in a coolly logical way typically associated with male protagonists, whereas Knox, because the trauma of his war experience is just under the skin, has more emotional reactions. One of the most interesting and insightful aspects of the novel is McGlynn’s running analysis of people’s psychology in various situations.

Sharp has a few troublesome writing tics, and the novel would have benefited from copy-editing and proofreading. Nevertheless, it’s an engaging read, and I look forward to more from her and the further exploits of McGlynn and Knox.

A slightly longer version of this review appeared on the Crime Fiction Lover website.