In the most vital essay on crime fiction ever written — Raymond Chandler's 1944 apologia "The Simple Art of Murder" — Chandler paid this tribute to his hard-boiled predecessor, Dashiell Hammett: "Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley."
Had Chandler been able to peer into one of those dirty crystal balls used as props by the counterfeit mystics of crime fiction, he might have outlined the future of the detective novel thusly: "Ross Macdonald went on to take murder out of the alley and dropped it into the suburban country club. And then Lisa Scottoline took murder out of the suburban country club and plopped it into the grammar school cafeteria and the back seat of a working mom's SUV."
Scottoline, as her multitude of fans well know, started out writing crime fiction in 1994 with her novel Everywhere That Mary Went, which introduced the fictional all-female Philadelphia law firm of Rosato & Associates. The danger-prone dames of that series are still going strong (Think Twice, which came out in 2010, pitted the firm's boss, Bennie Rosato, in a gothic battle against her evil twin). Of late, however, Scottoline has also been writing terrific stand-alone suspense novels in which the more workaday situations of, say, your middle-aged soccer mom morph into mayhem. Her newest book, Come Home, is a masterpiece of maternal unease that fits squarely into this latter genre of making the familiar strange.
Pediatrician Jill Farrow is in a good groove: Her part-time job at a local family practice is rewarding; her well-adjusted 13-year-old daughter, Megan, is a star of her swim team; and her fiance, Sam, is as faithful and adoring as a golden retriever. (Scottoline frequently writes personal essays about her dogs, so that canine comparison is meant as a compliment.) But life wasn't always so calm for Jill. Years ago, her first husband died suddenly, leaving her on her own to raise baby Megan. Jill remarried, but her handsome second husband, William (who brought his own two young daughters to that marriage), turned out to be a con artist, and their blended family eventually disintegrated.
In the opening of Come Home, Jill's hard-won tranquility is rocked by an emotional blast from the past: Her ex-stepdaughter Abby phones to say that William is dead. What seemed, at first, to be a suicide or accidental overdose has begun to look more malevolent. Abby pleads with Jill for help to make the police pay attention, but Abby's bitter older sister, Victoria, accuses Jill of trying to "bulldoze" her way back into her ex-stepdaughters' lives. As Jill becomes more drawn into the investigation, her daughter, Megan, flounders and her formerly mild-mannered fiance, Sam, grows miffed at what he sees as Jill's obsession with her dead ex and her former stepdaughters. In the midst of a climactic quarrel, Sam orders Jill to: "Choose, now. Last chance. Pick that family or this one."
"Why do I have to choose?" Jill asks, agonized.
"You just did," Sam answers, turning away.
Come Home couldn't be more topical in terms of the questions it raises about the definition of family, given the New American Normal in which the traditional nuclear unit has been stretched to the max by exes, steps, half-sibs and honoraries. (Just talk to any high school administrator in charge of apportioning graduation tickets these days!) As always, Scottoline serves up her sharp social commentary with breathless suspense (computer hacking! car chases!) and liberal lashings of feminist-inflected humor. Here's how another mom describes to Jill the mathematic calculations involved in making potato pancakes for her son to bring into school:
"There are twenty-three kids in the class, and I figure some kids will eat two, so that's thirty-three. Plus I have to suck up to the teacher, the aides, and the secretaries in the office, so that makes fifty. I bribe everybody. Elementary school is a banana republic, without the limos."
In the golden age of the early- to mid-20th century, American detective fiction was a strictly misogynist genre (not to mention racist, xenophobic and homophobic). That all changed when Scottoline and her sisters-in-crime like Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton began rewriting the politics of the genre. Imagine Hammett, Chandler or Macdonald — or their fictional gumshoes — ever thinking twice about school snacks or, for that matter, kids. Sam Spade and Co. may have known how to shoot straight, but they would have been clueless about sussing out the family turmoil lurking beneath the shiny facades of the suburban carpool line.