There’s a lot to admire in Becky Masterman’s first novel, starting with her heroine: petite, white-haired, 59-year-oldFBI agent Brigid Quinn. Although retired, Brigid uses her friendships with local law enforcement officer to elbow her way into investigations.
Describing herself as “a kick-ass-take-names sort of person,” Brigid is newly married to Carlo, an ex-priest and intellectual. As the story unfolds, she struggles to balance her obsessive pursuit of a serial killer with her love for Carlo, who she fears will never understand the side of her that can hate and even kill.
At the outset, in an isolated area near her Tucson home, Brigid is attacked by a man who intends to rape and murder her. Brigid, well versed in the martial arts, tries to disable the man but accidentally kills him. Although she acted in self-defense, she alters the crime scene to make the death look accidental. Why? Because she fears her husband’s reaction to her violence: “I’d waited too long for him,” she says, “and I would not drive him away the way I’d driven away every other civilian in my past.” Her deception, which she knows is illegal, will of course come back to haunt her.
Shortly afterward, a truck driver is arrested and charged with being the Route 66 killer who has brutally murdered at least eight young women, most of whom were hitchhiking. The publicity-loving boss of the Tucson FBI office is eager to take credit for closing a famous case, but Brigid and Laura Coleman, a special agent in the office, fear that, despite the truck driver’s confession, he isn’t the killer. When the two women pursue the case, despite official objections, someone — possibly the real Route 66 killer — comes after them.
Along the way, we’re treated to colorful commentary, sometimes amusing, sometimes surprising. Brigid is belatedly learning to cook, a challenge that became easier once she has “the epiphany that spaghetti isn’t made with ketchup.” She comments, with regard to her energetic sex life, “There’s something about criminal cases that makes me frisky.” In a darker moment, she declares, “We all embrace our inner serial killer at some point.” And this is the first novel I’ve encountered in which someone is charged with “having sex with a mummy.” Proving once again that, as Brigid notes elsewhere, “We are a depraved race. . . . We might as well admit it.”
Among the several fine characters Masterman introduces is Zach Robertson, a “decent dentist” and father of a missing FBI agent. Brigid has become close to Zach and once talked him out of suicide. She tries to cushion him amid the terror of his daughter’s disappearance. In movies, she notes, “When the bad guy is caught, the actors playing the family have Closure, knowing justice has been served.” But it’s not like that in real life, she adds: “Only suckers believe in Closure.” Some kinds of pain, she knows, end only with death.
The search for the serial killer is nicely plotted. Masterman had me suspecting just about everyone, including numerous officers of the law. When she did reveal the killer, I was surprised but had to admit that she’d planted numerous clues along the way and I’d waltzed right past them.
Yet much of the appeal of “Rage Against the Dying” lies in its love story. One of the questions we urgently want answered is whether Brigid’s obsession with the serial killer will destroy her marriage to Carlo. “Some people’s lives aren’t meant to include relationships,” she says in a moment of despair. For me, finding out if their love can survive in a world of violence became as important as finding the serial killer.
When Masterman sent a query about her novel to one agent, he responded, “Nobody is interested in a woman older than 30.” That agent must have been very young. Anyone who appreciates graceful, thoughtful, suspenseful writing will be glad to meet sexy, tough, conflicted and compassionate Brigid Quinn. When the nominations are made for the best crime-novel debut of the year, we should be hearing her name again.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.
RAGE AGAINST THE DYING
By Becky Masterman
Minotaur. 307 pp. $24.99