Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Book Review: Hank Phillippi Ryan's Jane Ryland Series is Stellar

Review by Susan Grigsby
I love Boston. While we traveled the country during the 80s, we spent weeks at a time out at Hanscom Air Force Base, which sits halfway between Lexington and Concord. Almost thirty years ago, we were still in the amateur stage of tourism. Eventually we would become quite professional, taking sick days and weekends off. But when we visited Boston we were still newbies who worked at soaking up every drop of Boston's rich history. And there is much to soak up.
But be warned, Boston is a different world when it comes to driving. Although they share some of the same laws as the rest of the country, the interpretation is slightly different. Or it was during the 80s. As an example, the prohibition against double parking was only meant to apply if you were planning on spending the night. For a few minutes, or even hours, there appeared to be no problem with just leaving your car in the middle of the road while you ran your errands.

It was on Route 128, which is the beltway that circles the city, that we first noticed the erratic freeway driving habits, as if the drivers were unaccustomed to signaling for lane changes or perhaps, as a trucker on the CB put it, they were "in no hurry to see lunch." We survived our multiple stays with only a single collision as a woman on her way to work failed to stop at stop sign and hit our car. Which was crawling along the Concord Road in stop-and-go traffic in the rain. Fortunately.
Some years later I had a writing assignment involving a "how to" instruction manual. My title was: "The Southern California Driver's Guide to Greater Boston." The first sentence: "Take a taxi."
The highways and byways of Boston are only significant in that Hank Phillippi Ryan uses them to weave her complex plots that are as convoluted and puzzling as any street map of Boston

Hank Phillippi Ryan is first an investigative journalist, appearing for years on Boston's NBC affiliate, WHDH, Channel 7. Her reporting has led to 30 EMMYs and 12 Edward R Murrow awards. According to her website:
...I've been a political campaign worker, a radio reporter, a press secretary to a US Congressman, a legislative aide in the United States Senate, and in a two-year stint in Rolling Stone Magazine's Washington Bureau, worked on the political column "Capitol Chatter" and organized presidential campaign coverage for Hunter S. Thompson.
(For those too young to remember, Hunter Thompson pretty much created gonzo journalism in which the reporter became a part of the story.)
When she is not working her day job, or serving as President of Sisters in Crime, or on the board of the Mystery Writers of America, or lecturing at an MWA University workshop, she finds time to write mystery novels. Her first series featured Charlotte McNally, a television reporter in her late forties, and consisted of Prime Time, Face Time, Air Time and Drive Time. The series won multiple nominations and awards, including the Agatha for Best First Novel.
But it wasn't until I was writing last month's diary on mystery award winners that I noticed her new series. And the first book in that series, The Other Woman, was hard for me to miss as I kept typing it into the shortlists of the Anthony, Agatha, Macavity, and Shamus Awards. It also won the Mary Higgins Clark Award. Scilicet had warned us all to keep an eye on the books that appear in the short lists for the awards, as the winners sometimes come about as compromises amongst the judges. So I noted the Other Woman and decided to read it.
The Other Woman
By Hank Phillippi Ryan
Forge Books
September 2012
416 pages

As the novel opens, Jane Ryland is a television reporter who was just been fired for refusing to disclose her source, costing her employer a million dollars in a court settlement. Hoping for a fresh start, and needing to pay the rent, Jane goes to work for the Boston Register as a print journalist. Her first assignment is to track down the wife of former governor, now US Senate candidate, Owen Lassiter. Why has the candidate's wife disappeared from the campaign trail? Is there another woman? Who is the woman in the red coat who keeps appearing in the file photographs of the campaign stops?
Meanwhile, Jake Brogan is a Boston Police Detective trying to determine if a serial killer is murdering young women under bridges in the Boston area. He doesn't think so, but the media has reached a different conclusion, complicating his work.
Naturally, the two investigations will eventually crossover, but before that happens, there are as many twists and turns as on the El Toro Roller Coaster at Six Flags in New Jersey. The women whose murders Jake is trying to solve turn up with no identification; the woman Jane is trying to track down does not seem to have a name either.
Having worked an earlier case, Jake and Jane came close to becoming lovers, but their own ethical standards prevent a relationship from developing between a source and a reporter or a cop and a reporter. Or so it seems.
Of course, in this fast paced, exquisitely plotted tale, told from multiple points of view, it is hard to determine what is what it appears to be. As difficult as it is to tell a tale from different points of view, Hank Ryan succeeds, allowing the reader to know more than the characters, creating an even greater sense of tension. Perhaps it is from juggling the many roles of her own life that Ryan knows how to keep so many balls in the air at the same time and make it look so effortless.
I enjoyed this book for its plotting and structure. I loved the surprises along the way. And the fact that it didn't end when I thought it would, but continued to twist and turn as more sub-plots were brought to satisfying conclusions.
In The Other Woman, Ryan gave us an insider's view of a political campaign. She brings that same insider's viewpoint to The Wrong Girl as she focuses on families, what they are, and the dangers inherent in an overburdened foster care system.
The Wrong Girl
By Hank Phillippi Ryan
Published by Forge Books
September 2013
368 pages

Some months after the action in The Other Woman, Jane's former colleague, Tuck Campbell, comes to her for help. The adoption agency, Brannigan Family and Children Services that placed Tuck, has reunited her with the woman they say is her birth mother. But it doesn't feel right to Tuck and she wants Jane to help her find her real birth mother.
Jane, unable to resist the allure of a mystery to solve, agrees to help, but before she can get a real start, she is assigned to cover the murder of a young woman in a Roslindale apartment. That is the same case that Jake Brogan is working, and he becomes disturbed by the fact that although there are two toddlers at the scene, there is also a crib that is unoccupied. No infant is found.
As Jake continues his investigation into the murdered woman, and Jane follows hers into the adoption agency that reunited Tuck to the wrong mother, a foster care system takes center stage as workers struggle to care for the huge number of children that need care. It is a system understaffed and underfunded, but it is not the only problem facing the children who need permanent homes. The adoption system has shortcomings of its own.
Once again, Hank Phillippi Ryan weaves multi-colored plot threads into an exciting and satisfying thriller. And fortunately, there are fewer of the romance subplots and possibilities in this second novel. Yes, there is something going on between Jane and Jake, even if unacknowledged. And that means that the musings of Jane over hot Alex (Jane's boss at the paper) and a campaign aide that worked for Lassiter are done. I hope.
Unlike most series that I have read, Ryan does not devote the first book to character development. She plunges right into the plot which she crafts expertly. The second novel also boasts an intricate plot, and the characters begin to take on a little more depth along the way. Except for the character that is in every scene, the city of Boston itself, which was fully developed in the first book. From DeLuca's accent, to the weather, the traffic and the brownstones, Boston is a major player, and so far, the most fleshed out character in the books. But that is okay with me. I love Boston.

Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.