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Book Review: Strange Bedfellows by Paula L. Woods

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In this fourth installment of Paula Woods’ chronicle of the somewhat checkered career of LAPD detective Charlotte Justice, the investigation of a drive-by shooting uncovers some devastating family secrets, even as Charlotte must confront some of her own lingering demons.

In Charlotte Justice, Woods has created a character who is compelling for both her dogged determination and her flawed, fiery personality. It is 1993, and LA is a seething cauldron of racial tension. No institution represents the stark dichotomy of the racial and gender divide more than the LAPD, with its deeply ingrained good ol’ boys network that is harshly stacked against an African-American woman such as Justice (who is both competent and outspoken, and also happens to be staring down a sizeable amount of male hostility for pursuing a harassment complaint against a fellow officer). Despite her relatively middle-class upbringing, and her status-conscious mother’s intense disappointment with her choice of a career, Justice finds herself almost compelled to pursue exactly that on the city’s streets.

Indeed, haunted as she is by the murder of her husband and young daughter, she finds can do little else – even though the anger and stress associated with her past and her present threaten her career and perhaps even her sanity (so much so that she’s resorted to seeing some of the shrinks recommended by the department, a fact she strives to hide from her family and co-workers). It is precisely at this moment that Justice joins the stalled investigation of a drive-by shooting, only to be powerfully reminded of the one truism of all mystery fiction: things are not always as they seem.

Chuck Zuccari, the aging scion of a successful toy company, remains in a coma months after he was the victim of a seemingly random drive-by assault. Zuccari’s pregnant young wife Alma was also nearly killed and remains steadfastly devoted to her husband, even though the wife she replaced angrily stews about the rising medical costs. Zuccari’s older children have taken over the company and are apparently engaged in a covert form of corporate infighting. There’s a whiff of large-scale embezzlement and the looming prospect of damning financial audits and examinations. The FBI is investigating Zuccari’s latest business partners, the intellectual Malik and Habiba Shareef.

Meanwhile, Charlotte finds herself embroiled in a game of cat-and-mouse with an FBI agent who may well have dangerous ties to Charotte’s brother and some of the the still-unresolved questions surrounding the murder of Charlotte’s husband. All the while, Woods eschews any easy outs: while her character confronts some very real gender and race issues, she is also angry, headstrong, and not always the most sympathetic of protagonists. In that regard, she seems far more three-dimensional than many characters, and her prickly irritation with others only serves to make her more human.

The plot is somewhat convoluted and perhaps a bit far-fetched, but Woods strives to keep the reader’s attention more on the characters than the factual developments anyway. In a unique maze of monologue-based exposition, flashback, and conversation, Woods manages to propel the narrative forward at a leisurely pace without ever seeming tedious. The story’s social conscience fuses remarkably well with its personal therapeutic component, leaving the reader perhaps far more interested in the ultimate developments in Charlotte’s own life than in the resolution of the putative investigation she wraps up in the conclusion of the novel.

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