Created by Lisa Brackmann
She may not be a P.I., but questions of honour, loyalty and autonomy -- not to mention a bull-headed sense of duty -- pop up often enough in Lisa Brackman's ELLIE McENROE series to suggest inclusion in these pages wouldn't be entirely unwarranted.
In Rock Paper Tiger (2010), when we first meet her, Ellie's a beer-drinking, foul-mouthed Iraq war vet who left a big chunk of her leg back in the "Sandbox" and has since carved out a new life for herself in China, of all places, acting as the representative of edgy dissident artist Zhang Jianli. She just wants to get away from all the baggage in her life, but somehow it doesn't quite work out that way. Turns out she's something of a shit magnet no matter where she goes.
But it's in Hour of the Rat (2013), the rocking sequel, that we really see what a great private eye she could be.
Her motives, her dogged determination and her burning sense of moral outrage will be familiar to anyone who's ever read Chandler's The Long Goodbye. Like that hard-boiled classic, Ellie reluctantly agrees to do a favour for a friend and promptly gets dragged into something that's way beyond her pay grade. It's only a streak of pure stubbornness and possibly misplaced dedication that keeps her going.
Then again, although Ellie's rude wit may seem familiar, we're a long way from Chander's beloved Los Angeles' mean streets of the forties and fifties -- modern day China may be every bit as mean (the air in Beijing, Ellie swears, "is out to kill her") but Brackman captures it all with an unflinching honesty and frank sense of moral unease that strips bare the romance and myths of "the new China"-- and of the old capitalism running amuck.
Dog, an old Army buddy who got "fucked up royally," asks Ellie to find Jason, his missing brother, supposedly on the loose somewhere in China. Feeling guilt about a brief affair they had in Iraq, Ellie reluctantly agrees.
But China's a big country with a lot of people. Nor does it turn out to be a simple wandering tourist job -- Ellie soon discovers that Jason's an environmental activist who's angered both the U.S. and Chinese governments, as well as several giant corporations who'd rather their GMO secrets stay secret.
Ellie's PTSD-tinged hunt for Jason, as she crisscrosses China by train, bus and tractor, journeying from trendy Western style tourist traps to toxic wastelands and back. is as intriguing as it is disturbing -- and disheartening for Ellie. Initially, she considers hauling her "gimpy ass" back to Beijing, but she ploughs on because, as she confesses, she likes "having a mission... Having something to do. Something that matters."
Plus, she notes optimistically, "they might have beer." And it's a great way to avoid returning to her Beijing apartment where her visiting mother is waiting.
Definitely a series -- and an author -- to watch.
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. A version of this entry firsdt asppeared in Mystery Scene.
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