I often talk about literary catnip — those elements of a story’s plot, premise, or setting that I just can’t resist, like Sherlock Holmes retellings, librarian protagonists, or quirky cafes. Another favorite: Chicago private detectives. Give me a gritty, down-on-their-luck, good-hearted detective who works in the city I love, and I am SOLD.
That being said, even catnip books still need a compelling protagonist, a vivid fictional world, sharp dialogue, and a great, multilayered plot. All too often, catnip reads fall short. So when I find one that exceeds my expectations, I shove it in the hands of everyone I know.
Which brings us to Broken Places, Tracy Clark’s fantastic first Cass Raines mystery. Cass is a former Chicago cop whose colleague’s mishandling of a suspect leads to her being shot. Two years later, she has resigned from the force and become a PI and landlord, content to take small cases and live a quiet life. Then a local priest, a surrogate father to Cass, is found dead in his church next to a murdered gang member. The detective assigned to the case is the same one involved in Cass’s shooting, and his theory — that the priest shot the gang member and then killed himself out of guilt—doesn’t hold water. She sets out to uncover the truth and get justice for her found family.
Cass is strong willed and smart, doing her best to cope with the physical and emotional wounds of her past. As a Black woman and former police officer, she’s no starry-eyed sentimentalist, but a realist with a strong moral code and sense of justice. She’s also delightfully real — there are no superhuman feats of strength or deduction here, just her instincts and determination and wry sense of humor. The dialogue is crisp and funny, and the mystery is complex and clever — its twists are meaningful red herrings, rather than mere coincidence. And while Chicago features prominently in the story, it centers on neighborhoods and people, rather than landmarks and cliches.
Cass is a welcome addition to the Chicago PI family, and happily, Broken Places is the first book in this award-winning series. Whether Chicago stories are your catnip or you’re looking for a new series to dig into, this one is well worth your time.