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Book Review: Toxicity by Libby Fischer Hellmann

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Fans of the Georgia Davis PI series (Easy Innocence and Doubleback), and anybody who loves police procedurals written tautly, with grit and a healthy dose of noir, will love this one. Toxicity is a prequel to the other Georgia Davis PI books and takes place 10 years earlier when Georgia is a young cop on a suburban Chicago police force.

The story opens with a hook. The antagonist overseeing the death of a man dying in agony. This prologue will pull readers in to grab their attention like a road accident. There is no cure for morbid curiosity. We know we shouldn’t look, be we can’t help ourselves.

In suburban North Shore Chicago three bodies turn up in succession, all ‘dumped’; one in a garbage truck to be ground up, one in a landfill and one in a pit in a waste disposal site. Glenbrook detective Matt Singer is called to the scene of the first body where Officer Georgia Davis, his fiancé, is securing the scene doing crowd control. Soon another body is discovered in the jurisdiction of Detective Sergeant John Stone, from neighboring Northview. There’s nothing to tie the crimes together except for the fact that both were peripherally associated with a developer named Feldman who also owns the garbage company. Singer and Stone partner up, and when a third body shows up, and the actual cause in none of the deaths is readily identifiable by the M.E. The political pressure, and the pressure from the wealthy Feldman’s, starts to pile on.

Solid leads are few, and clues are non-existent. As much as can be determined, all three deaths were from different causes and could have been innocently explained, except that all three bodies were moved to Feldman properties. Singer is driven by his Jewish heritage to reconcile murder and the pursuit of justice for the victim with his heritage. Even though Georgia is a young inexperienced patrol cop, he recognizes her intelligence and tenacity and unofficially thrusts her into the case. But when Singer and Davis’ boss finds out they are living together, Davis is suspended. At first Davis is hurt by the fact that Singer betrayed her in order to stay on the case, and also because of the fact that to Singer’s family, Davis is just Singer’s shiksaand she not only feels rejected by his family, but looked on as a flirtation or even his whore.

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Georgia hits the bottle, but soon gets herself together and starts to research the different deaths, looking for a common thread. Meanwhile Singer, frustrated by the lack of progress, and succumbing to both the pressure from his family and the pressure from his bosses, marginalizes Georgia and starts falling for the beautiful Ricki Feldman, the daughter of the wealthy developer who had started off as a garbage man 20 years earlier. Ricki is not only an observant Jew, but stunningly gorgeous, and she has Singer in her sights.  

The story is really a “how-done-it”, not a who-done-it, and Hellmann writes tight, well-researched prose to make the story work oh so well. There is a certain “hardboiled” feeling to the story without the use of the usual clichés. Instead, the dialogue is taut and to the point but never relies on “tough guy” one-liners. The hardboiled atmosphere instead comes from the dark aspects of the story and the gritty persistence of the characters, and a pace to the story that is perfect.

The character development, which happens slickly as the plot unwinds, and is seamlessly woven into the story, draws the characters as real humans with real lives. Before you know it you are familiar with their dreams, frustrations and motivations. And there is nothing of the sensational. They walk across the scenes as complete characters, from wrinkled suits to bad habits, from endearing traits to thought processes.

The plot itself is complex and full of red herrings and dead ends that aren’t just “devices” but tell the back story. There are elements pertinent to current concerns about the environment, corporate greed, and corruption of the political and legal systems. Hellmann uses small details to instill a sense of place and to bring the story to life: a Bob Dylan poster on a lawyers wall, with psychedelic colored hair (I own this poster!), the green copy button and the smell of ink from a Xerox machine. But the details push the story along, not weigh it down. You can see, feel, and smell the places and the people.

Hellmann is also wildly successful in developing empathy for the antagonist who is drawn as both a victim and a cold blooded serial killer. The back story is real, and has happened a thousand times only to be quickly forgotten. But Hellmann makes the reader aware that it is not forgotten by those whose lives it effected — and that when the system fails, sometimes people take justice into their own hands.

Hellmann writes in many genres, but her Georgia Davis series may just be one of the best crime thriller series being written today.

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About The Dirty Lowdown

I was born in Pomona, California at a very young age. I had a pretty normal childhood…or I was a pretty normal child hood if mom is telling the story. I was a paperboy and washed cars. I was a soda fountain jock-jerk and a manic mechanic but my first real job was as a labor organizer in a maternity ward. Then, because of the misjudgment of a judge I spent nearly 10 years in the service of our country mostly on KP duty. Our country sure turns out a lot of dirty dishes. I am a past master at pots and pans. They eventually recognized my real talent and let me wander around some very unfriendly places carrying a big radio that didn’t work. Along the way I took up the bass guitar, jotting down stories, electronic engineering and earned a degree in advanced criminal activities. I spent most of my adult life, if you can call it that, working in the I.T. industry, which I was particularly suited for since we worked in rooms with no windows. On and off I taught in colleges, universities and reform schools as a student teacher… I like smog, traffic, kinky people, car trouble, noisy neighbors, and crowded seedy bars where I have been known to quote Raymond Chandler as pickup lines. I have always been a voracious reader, everything from the classics, to popular fiction, history to science but I have a special place in my heart for crime fiction, especially hard-boiled detective fiction and noir. I write a book and music review blog for all genres at The Dirty Lowdown. And another dedicated to Crime Fiction and all things Noir called Crimeways. It’s named after the magazine that appeared in the Kenneth Fearing classic, The Big Clock. There I write scholarly reviews of the classic hard boiled, noir and crime fiction books from the 20's through today. Mostly I drool over the salacious pictures on the covers. I also write for Tecnorati/BlogCritics where i am part of a sinister cabal of superior writers.
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