BOOK BEAT Naples Sun Times February 27, 2008
by Philip K. Jason
Cape Coral resident Elizabeth Becka, who introduced forensic specialist Evelyn James in “Trace Evidence” (2005, and recently released in paperback), has now followed up with a startling new case for James to unravel. “Unknown Means” continues this heroine’s career in the Cleveland Medical Examiner’s office, while Elizabeth Becka (who once worked for the Coroner’s Office of Cleveland) continues her career with the Cape Coral Police Department. Though too many writers don’t take this age-old advice, Becka has wisely chosen to write about what she knows.
The plot of “Unknown Means” involves a series of deaths, all to attractive women of some social prominence, as well as an attack on Becka’s good friend and co-worker, Marissa Gonzalez, who is about to marry into that social sphere. Becka’s challenge, which of course is the readers’ puzzle as well, is to discover the who, why, and how behind this series of crimes. The method of operation is a blatant calling card suggesting a single perpetrator.
The “locked room” crime scenes suggest that the criminal is known to the victims or has some special means of access to their various homes. While there are plausible suspects for the individual crimes, Becka needs to find the common denominators of motive and victim selection that point to a single actor. A smudge of grease ends up being a primary clue to the killer’s identity. It is one piece of the physical evidence that eventually leads to the solution.
Collecting and examining physical evidence is what Evelyn James does, and she is very good at it without being flashy or possessed of uncanny insights. The scientific work is interesting, though a bit tedious as well, and Becka knows just how much description of evidence collecting and laboratory work is enough to feed readers’ curiosity while keeping the story moving. She also knows how to continue building Evelyn James as a credible, engaging character, a working mom with concerns that make conflicting demands on her time and her emotional energy.
The protagonist’s character is developed through James’s commitment to her work and to her sticky relationship with her teenage daughter. Though the daughter, Angel, remains a somewhat insubstantial figure in this novel, that’s in part in keeping with the willed distance caused by her independent streak and the odd hours that James’s work often requires. That is, the daughter is not home that much, as she is beginning to build her own life, and when she is home James may not be. There is more to be done with this relationship in future novels. Another side of Evelyn James is shown in her complicated and convoluted relationship with homicide detective David Milaski. It’s one of those “I should know better than to get involved in a workplace romance” situations, and Elizabeth Becka handles it quite well.
Solving the crimes involves getting to know the victims, and here too Becka crafts her narration of the investigation in an efficient and colorful manner. The portraits of the women are sharply drawn, especially that of bossy Kelly Alexander, whose family company owns the salt mines (yes, salt mines in Cleveland) in which an explosion takes place that kills several people, providing a motive for someone to kill Ms. Alexander.
Interrogation is an important part of crime fiction, and in “Unknown Means” this part of the inquiry is frequently handled by Detective Milaski and his senior sidekick, Bruce Riley. Evelyn James does her share, but it is both realistic and entertaining to hear this range of voices gathering information. Roles are reversed when James herself is questioned by an aggressive young reporter named Clio Helms.
The city of Cleveland is a major presence in “Unknown Means,” as it should be. Becka establishes the city’s overarching personality as well as the particular feel of various neighborhoods and suburbs. Her handling of place is authoritative without being overdone. Of course, readers will wonder if James will eventually follow her creator to Southwest Florida. Meanwhile, following Evelyn James while she follows the evidence in Cleveland is a very satisfying experience.
Find out more about this must-read author at elizabethbecka.com.
Philip K. Jason, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy. A poet, critic, and free-lance writer with twenty books to his credit, this “Dr. Phil” chairs the annual Naples Writers’ Conference presented by the Naples Press Club.
SEE ALSO LISA BLACK