Friday, June 29, 2012

Friday's Forgotten Books: THE HARD WAY by Carol Lea Benjamin

If it's Friday it's you know what day - so all together now: FRIDAY'S FORGOTTEN BOOKS!!! Yup.

Usually hosted by Patti Abbott at her blog, PATTINASE, today FFB Central has temporarily moved over to Todd Mason's blog SWEET FREEDOM. So for a list and the requisite links to other bloggers posting their favorite Forgotten Books today, check in with Todd.

My contribution to the FFB mix is a review of a book I did a few years ago for the old but definitely not forgotten mysteryink website. A site that is, unfortunately, just about done for (hasn't been active in years) so I'm running around trying to save my old reviews (of books not to be missed) from complete extinction.

Here's one of them:

The Hard Way (2006) by Carol Lea Benjamin

Hiding in plain sight, hoping to be accepted in the netherworld of New York's homeless, private eye Rachel Alexander and her pit bull Dashiell wander the city's mean streets, looking for answers in the death of Gardner Redstone. The wealthy fashion executive met a horrific end pushed beneath the wheels of a rush hour subway train by what witnesses describe as a homeless man. Redstone's iron-willed daughter Eleanor, not satisfied with the actions of the police, has hired Rachel to search out the truth.

In The Hard Way, the ninth book in Carol Lea Benjamin's hard-edged series featuring her pragmatic and flinty-eyed detective creation, Rachel Alexander is handed one of the most personally challenging cases of her career.

Making herself nearly invisible by throwing on the guise of Eunice, a dumpster scavenging homeless woman and her dog (even Dashiell gets a new identity), Rachel soon finds that searching for the truth is as elusive as digging out her next meal, and twice as dangerous. Trust is a scarce commodity among the many homeless who venture out onto the city streets barely making it from day to day, hanging on to their humanity by the skin of their teeth, all but invisible to the outside world.

In fact, in one very telling scene in a park, Rachel in her Eunice persona is handed a few coins by her ex-husband who, thinking her hardly meriting a glance, fails completely to recognize her. True, they haven't seen each other in a while, but Rachel is still amazed at the power of invisibility that unwashed clothes, urine soaked shoes and an unkempt appearance can bestow.

Author Benjamin has long been known for her brilliant characterizations and in The Hard Way she creates another of those special characters who loom large over the book from beginning to end. Though he doesn't appear in many scenes, the lost Iraqi War veteran called Eddie will stay with you throughout and beyond the reading of this book, I guarantee it. Without resorting to sentiment, Benjamin has a unique gift for illuminating broken lives in a few quick strokes. Eddie's sad circumstances seem as real and as plausible as if they'd happened to that nice kid up the street.

Though homeless and burdened with memory loss, Eddie's helping hand nevertheless helps steer Rachel to the ultimate truth. There's a poignant scene set in a restaurant between Eddie and Rachel which will absolutely break your heart and maybe leave you misty-eyed. He is that real and that powerful a character.

As the investigation proceeds, Rachel eventually is forced to leave her "street" persona, as events warrant her looking closer to home at the Redstone family business, the very high-end boutique, GL Leather, on West Fourteenth Street. ("The new Mecca of conspicuous consumption.")
Rachel not only insinuates herself into the small sales staff, but Eleanor Redstone's business acumen manages to turn Dashiell into a selling tool as he parades around the shop at Christmas time wearing a totally impractical, excruciatingly expensive leather "canine trench-coat" that, of course, immediately becomes a best seller.

As the grim economic realities of everyday business in the cutthroat fashion world are revealed and Rachel repeatedly goes back and picks at the conflicting memories of the various witnesses, the death of Gardner Redstone may take on a more ominous personal tone.

The ever-defensive Rachel also reconnects with cop Michael Brody, and a glimmer of hope is given that perhaps this time out, she'll open herself to life. Hard lessons have been learned on her last two cases, so all we can do is watch and wait.

I like the New York grittiness of this character very much. I like the way Rachel never gives her charismatic dog any non-canine traits. As a dog trainer, Carol Lea Benjamin knows whereof she speaks when it comes to dog behavior and this helps enrich her stories and make the bond between woman and dog realistically believable.

But it is in her gift for characterization that Benjamin really shines. Very few authors can match her keen eye. Heart-of-the-matter is her style. Couple that with a brisk unsentimental tone and you have one of the better writers working today.

This is not a series that must be read in order, so I say, just pick this one up and dig in. You will not be disappointed but you will wonder why you waited this long to read the work of Carol Lea Benjamin.


  1. Sounds great Yvette - abashed to say, another author I've not read at all but I really like stories with female PIs (not enough of the, in the movies, that's for sure) - shall seek and hopefully find - and glad to hear the order isn't too important, that should really help!

  2. I hope you like these, Sergio. I'd skip the first couple of books in the series, they don't really get going until a bit later. But that's just my opinion.


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