By Janice Harayda
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, April 13, 2009
By Lisa Scottoline
St. Martin's. 337 pp. $26.95
In her entertaining Philadelphia Inquirer column, Chick Wit, Lisa Scottoline dealt recently with her inability to spot a con artist. "I've been reading a lot in the news lately about swindlers like Bernie Madoff, and I feel sorry for the people and charities who were duped," she said. "There, but for the money, go I."
That statement may involve a bit of comic license. One of the most successful survivors of the shakeout in the legal-thriller market after its boom in the 1990s, Scottoline might rank high on any list of novelists whose calls Madoff would be eager to return even from his jail cell. But her comment accurately reflects the snap and self-mocking wit of her books. Scottoline's writing hasn't acquired the paunch often found in thrillers by authors whose careers have reached the literary equivalent of middle age. Her plots are as lean and swift as a scull on the Schuylkill River in her native Philadelphia, the setting for all her books.
A former litigator, Scottoline anchored each of her first 15 novels to a strong woman with a law degree: a lawyer, a judge or a law professor. In her 16th, she introduces her first heroine from outside the profession, Ellen Gleeson, a reporter for a Philadelphia newspaper and the single mother of a 3-year-old adopted son, Will.
"Look Again" gets off to an iffy start when, on the first page, Ellen arrives home from work carrying a briefcase, as though she had returned from a law office instead of a newsroom. Scottoline might try this exercise if she's planning a sequel: 1. Hold a spiral notebook in one hand and a pen in the other; 2. Start taking notes at, say, a demonstration at city hall; 3. Try to hold on to a briefcase as you do. If Ellen wants to be taken seriously as journalist, she needs to start dressing like the rest of us and carry either a big overstuffed shoulder bag or a canvas tote, preferably stained by ink, coffee and the mayonnaise from a half-eaten tuna wrap.
But in "Look Again" Scottoline resembles a figure skater who wobbles in the first seconds of a routine, then executes a fine sequence of laybacks, sit spins and double Lutzes. After arriving home with her briefcase in hand, Ellen finds in her mail a flier that says, "HAVE YOU SEEN THIS CHILD?" The card shows a photo of a kidnapped Florida boy, Timothy Braverman, who is nearly identical to her son. As a mother and reporter, Ellen wants to learn more about the mysterious resemblance. She adopted Will legally, but did the child's birth parents tell all they knew to her adoption lawyer?
Ellen begins to ask questions that take her from Philadelphia to the Miami home of the wealthy Bravermans. She learns that her adoption lawyer, who might have had answers, has died. After another key figure dies, Ellen suspects that someone is killing everyone who knew too much about Will's adoption. That means she and her son are in danger, too.
Scottoline tells this story in 96 chapters so short they appear written for the iPhone screen as much for the page and, at times, read like extended Twitter tweets. At least one chapter has fewer than 200 words. Another consists solely of a description of how Ellen feels as she sits in her car next to a FedEx box before mailing a package. Even so, Scottoline finds room to explore a plausible moral dilemma: What's the right thing to do if Ellen's son is the missing boy? She also offers interesting views on legal issues such as differences among state adoption and custody laws and how easy it is to ferret out someone's background if you have a home DNA kit and a cigarette butt.
To all of this Scottoline adds a romantic subplot that may hearten journalism students who wonder if working for a newspaper can still have rewards when news holes are shrinking, ad revenue is declining, and readers are defecting to the Internet. "Look Again" brings reassurance that being a reporter can indeed have its payoffs: You could work for a "hot, single Latin boss" like Ellen's, a Brazilian who is "Antonio Banderas with a journalism degree." Ellen may fear that she'll be the next one laid off in her newsroom, but the sexy Marcelo allows her to stay philosophical. "At least," she says, "I'll get canned by somebody hot."
Harayda is a journalist and novelist who writes the One-Minute Book Reviews blog.