A Killing Gift
One of my fellow reviewers recently wrote in a review of J.D. Robb’s Imitation in Death that the secret to a good continuing series is a strong main character surrounded by an equally strong supporting cast. This certainly holds true in A Killing Gift, the latest installment in Leslie Glass’s police procedural/mystery series featuring Detective April Woo. There are some remarkable similarities between both series, and those similarities are the things that make them both so good.
Reaffirming an impression from previous novels I’ve read by her, in A Killing Gift Glass demonstrates a great skill for characterization. It’s all in the little details, the attitudes, the internal comments. Each player, no matter how minor, is given a backstory so that you feel as if you know them, quirks and all. Many mystery authors miss the nuance and carve characters with broad, often caricature-like lines. Glass doesn’t make that mistake.
April Woo is the main character who holds this mystery series together, and she is fascinating. A detective in the New York City Police Department, April is American Born Chinese (ABC, she calls herself), and her ethnicity is more than a a wallpaper backdrop. The paradox and contrast between April’s upbringing and culture and the demands of her chosen profession are a constant in the story and in the entire series. The conflicting pulls of mysticism/tradition and forensics/logic are the yin/yang in her life, never to be forgotten or taken for granted. We watch her sway this way then that depending on the situation, and believe her each time. As readers of Robb’s series will recognize, it’s a well drawn main character who can be conflicted in such a basic way and still bring readers along with her for the ride.
In A Killing Gift, April is a victim as well as a detective. This unwanted dual role sets a variety of emotions and plotlines in motion and is a theme which takes precedence at times over the actual investigation. Assaulted and nearly strangled after racing down Manhattan streets in pursuit of the killer who just murdered her former mentor, despite her injuries April is still determined to be on the case. Ignoring the protests from those who love her, she’s sitting in on interviews even before she regains her voice.
April’s relationship with her fiance, Lieutenant Mike Sanchez, is multi-faceted and ever-evolving. The two have a strong bond of understanding and love, but it’s tinged with the frustration and the occasionally frayed nerves that result from working and living together so closely. Their communication is often in shorthand – a mixed blessing at times as they move through their latest case.
Because the murder victim was one of the NYPD’s own, Mike is given the primary role of lead investigator despite the rank that would normally keep him from actively working a case. Mike, who isn’t happy about the assignment, understandably wants April out of the picture where he knows she will be safe from the at-large perpetrator, who may not realize that she cannot identify him. Self-identified as a bad team player who always wants things to move faster and further than the rest of the team (including Mike), April is not going to sit idly by. Believable tension arises between the two on multiple occasions and comes to a head near the end of the book.
The mystery itself is engrossing , complicated, and interesting, and pulls together the seemingly divergent worlds of horse racing, martial arts, and high-stakes educational institution fundraising. Who killed Lieutenant Bernardino just as he was leaving his retirement party, and the whereabouts of his lottery millions (won just months before) are the first questions. Whether or not a seemingly unconnected second murder of a Manhattan socialite has been committed by the same perp is the next. Watching April connect the dots – often on her own and at whiplash speed – while still recovering from the effects of her injuries – absorbs the reader. Dealing with the demands of her fierce, unsupportive, and melodramatic mother (known as Skinny Dragon Mother) and coping with the effect of actions that are in frequent opposition ot what Mike has actually asked of her only adds to the dramatic tension.
Towards the end of the book, some of April’s actions and reactions seem out of step with the character we’d come to know earlier on. Her behavior and attitude towards Mike seemed more like those of a spoiled child than an adult woman. And the final pages of A Killing Gift seemed rushed, as though Glass had reached the end of her word count. This was a disappointment, because the story itself was of such quality and depth that I expected more from the resolution.
Those quibbles aside, A Killing Gift is a very good example of a well-plotted and even better character-driven mystery/police procedural featuring a strong female cop. If you are a fan of J.D. Robb’s In Death series and haven’t yet tried an April Woo mystery, then I urge you to give one of them a go. I haven’t yet read the entire series, but I certainly intend to after enjoying this one so much.