Generally speaking, I like three things in my crime fiction: a twisty puzzle, an engaging protagonist, and a distinctive style. It’s the trifecta of crime writing, and I was delighted to discover that Rachel Howzell Hall’s latest thriller, THESE TOXIC THINGS succeeds on all counts. Known for her lauded Detective Lou Norton mysteries, Hall’s book is tense and inventive, with a engaging, well-drawn heroine — Mickie Lambert, a digital archivist whose latest project reawakens a long-dormant serial killer and ghosts of her own past.
Mickie’s job is to curate people’s memories by creating virtual scrapbooks of meaningful objects. She’s passionate about helping people connect to their history and their loved ones, though a bad breakup is causing her to question her future at the company, and she’s moved back to her parents’ while she decides what to do next.
Feeling unmoored, Mickie jumps at the chance to catalog twelve objects from her latest client, a elderly woman named Nadia, who dies under suspicious circumstances just before she is supposed to tell Mickie the story behind each of items. Determined to honor Nadia’s last wish, Mickie presses on with the project, but her research unearths the objects’ sinister histories, and soon she’s receiving threatening notes, unwanted visitors, and the sense that her own past harbors secrets, too.
These Toxic Things has all the hallmarks of a solid thriller — a clever plot packed with reversals, surprises, and misdirection, rapidly escalating tension as the killer from Nadia’s past edges ever-closer to Mickie’s life, and a cast of supporting characters hiding plenty of secrets, including a shady land developer, Nadia’s estranged son, or Mickie’s adoring mother. Several times, I thought I’d figured out the how and why of the story, and each time more was revealed, like the layers of an onion. The killer’s point of view is carefully handled, and the histories of Nadia’s treasures, woven through the story, add an extra layer of tension, especially as you barrel toward the finish.
As good as the plot is, however, Mickie is what truly makes this novel a standout. Twenty-four, a little aimless, a little spoiled, and a lot heartbroken, she’s also savvy, generous, principled, and loyal. The relationship between Mickie and her parents (and her extended family) is an absolute delight, full of love and exasperation and inside jokes. Best of all, while the protagonists of most thrillers routinely rush into danger without thinking twice, Mickie’s too smart for such shenanigans. She tells people where she’s going. She doesn’t act like a lone wolf. She doesn’t take stupid risks — so when she does end up in danger, it feels like a genuine threat.
THESE TOXIC THINGS combines an inventive premise, a chilling plot, and a fantastic heroine to great effect — so much so that I’m hoping we haven’t seen the last of Mickie Lambert.