by Elizabeth Becka
Published by Hyperion
336 pages, 2008
Ups and Downs
Reviewed by Jim Winter
Over the years, many writers have set their stories in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. Les Roberts is perhaps the best known among them, with his private eye Milan Jacovich series. More recently, Michael Koryta (Sorrow’s Anthem, A Welcome Grave) has taken over with his increasingly strong Lincoln Perry novels. Then of course some hack from Cincinnati put out a small-press novel in 2005 called … Northcoast … um… Oh, never mind.
Lately, however, the North Coast has been getting the CSI treatment. Elizabeth Becka, a former forensics expert for Cuyahoga County, brings her old job front-and-center through the fictional character of Evelyn James. James, a trace evidence specialist and single mom, debuted in Becka’s well-received first novel, Trace Evidence (2005). She returns in Unknown Means.
James is confronted in these pages with two tough cases. The first, the gruesome murder of Grace Markham, is a locked-room mystery. The dead woman is found strangled and posed in an upright position inside a building with nearly airtight security. No one can get in or out without being seen, by any known means.
No sooner does our heroine finish working that crime scene, in company with her boyfriend, Detective David Milaski, than she is summoned to an industrial accident.
Unfortunately for Evelyn James, this accident occurred 600 feet beneath the bottom of Lake Erie, in a salt mine. It’s perfectly safe, the mine manager assures her. But Jones is claustrophobic. Which is a big problem, because the law requires that the medical examiner arrive at the scene ahead of the inspectors from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
The salt mine case, while forcing Jones to face her phobia, also proves to be a welcome distraction from problems she’s having with her daughter, Angel, a headstrong 17-year-old. The locked-room murder, however, serves only to aggravate growing tensions between Jones and Detective Milaski. The couple can’t seem to agree on their living together.
The homicide probe suddenly becomes personal when Jones’ co-worker and the office spitfire, Marissa Gonzales, is attacked by Grace Markham’s killer. To further complicate things, police discover what looks like an earlier victim of the same slayer, one who had a connection to Markham, but no obvious link to Marissa.
Meanwhile, it takes the appearance of the salt mine’s owner, a woman named Kelly Alexander, to give James and Milaski enough to go on with that second case. And Alexander entering the picture puts another kink into that accident probe.
Author Becka writes in a rather dry, clinical style -- not surprising, given her professional background. Some of the scenes in which Jones is either working on evidence or pondering her boss covering for Marissa, are heavy on technical detail. An example:
Under an alternative light source, the sweater showed no signs of semen or other bodily fluids. [Jones] did notice some odd, gleaming streaks on the skirt -- not semen but thin lines of some reflective substance. She cut an inch-square swatch and placed it in a manila envelope before she taped the skirt, pressing clear packaging tape to the surface. She then smoothed the tape onto a sheet of clear acetate to examine later for hairs and fibers.
Many scenes here read like that, including one in which Jones interviews members of an elevator maintenance crew. I don’t think I’m giving too much away when I recommend that you pay close attention to the elevator talk. It will be important later in the book.
One of the things about Unknown Means that I noticed right off the bat was the sense of place Becka creates as she moves Jones (or Milaski, who is the focus of several scenes) around Cleveland. Her city on the lake is quite different from Les Roberts’, or Michael Koryta’s. Becka’s protagonist is also of a younger generation than Milan Jacovich, and she’s older than Lincoln Perry. So she doesn’t mourn the loss of this burg’s ethnic character the way that Jacovich does, nor does she pine for a childhood lived during the city’s comeback in the 1980s. Evelyn James, though, does grieve for one element of Cleveland that many of us from the same area also miss.
The Flats, the banks along the mouth of the [Cuyahoga River], had been an industrial depot before developers in the go-go eighties converted it to trendy bars. As the nineties went bust, the area began to go back to its roots, and the new salt mine building had been built over the rubble of the landmark Fagan’s Pub. Evelyn had been to Fagan’s only twice in her life … but that didn’t matter. Fagan’s had watched over the lake and the city for generations, and she mourned it.
Becka threads Jones’ parallel personal life through this story by way of two subplots. First, there is the ongoing conflict between Evelyn, who comes off as obsessive compulsive, and her love interest, Milaski, whose desire to move in with her is a bit too casual for our heroine. Second, we see Evelyn fretting over her daughter, Angel, whom Evelyn can’t seem to accept as almost an adult. Of these story lines, the Milaski one is the more natural. Every moment those two characters interact provides fresh tension, and even over dead bodies at crime scenes, they can’t stop arguing about their living together.
On the other hand, when Evelyn worries over Angel, the story begins to feel a bit forced. It seems as though Angel is an afterthought. The exception occurs late in this story, when David Milaski comes by the Jones house and manages to lure young Angel to his side of the moving-in argument. At that point, Angel is more a part of the romantic subplot than an extension of Evelyn’s personal life.
But Jones’ co-worker, Marissa Gonzales, is the character through whom author Becka really shines. During the time that Marissa is conscious and interacting with other characters, she is a minor figure at best. However, after she is attacked and incapacitated, Becka paints a vivid picture of Marissa through other characters’ reactions to her absence. With the forensics specialist sidelined, everyone -- including Jones -- is compelled to step out of their comfort zones.
Unknown Means is a straight-ahead thriller. While Elizabeth Becka makes forays into Evelyn James’ personal life, or uses it to color a scene, the forensics angle is front and center. While Les Roberts preferred to explore the city’s ethnic flavor, Becka has given us a peek at what CSI: Cleveland might look like. | May 2008
Jim Winter is a writer, reviewer and comedian in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he does tech support for an insurance company. He’s a regular contributor to Crimespree and an occasional contributor to both The Rap Sheet and the comedy podcast The Awful Show. His short stories have appeared in Pulp Pusher, Spinetingler Magazine and Plots With Guns. Check out his blog, Edged in Blue.