The detective-mystery genre is dominated by male heroes—white male heroes, to be precise. There is Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Elmore Leonard and Dashiell Hammett’s leading men. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. And many, many more. The few black faces we have in this realm are also male: Walter Mosley’s classic Easy Rawlins novels and, more recently, Attica Locke’s Jay Porter books are still in line with that classic male archetype. Only men, it seems—and usually white men—get to solve crimes, serve and protect, or save the day.
Enter Rachel Howzell Hall with a much-needed breath of fresh air. Hall’s new mystery series is led by Detective Elouise Norton, a brilliant, beautiful, black female Los Angeles detective. Norton, who grew up in the infamous “Jungle” section of south Los Angeles, has given up her notions of pursuing a legal career to now serve the community as an officer of the law. She is simply trying to solve crimes and do right by the regular, everyday black people who are invisible to others.
In Hall’s critically acclaimed debut novel of the series Land of Shadows, published in 2014, we were introduced to Detective Norton—and the mystery of her sister’s disappearance when they were both children, which has haunted Norton all these years. Hall quickly followed that up with Skies of Ash in 2015, another Elouise Norton mystery revolving around a triple murder, infidelity and insurance fraud. And now, just in time for summer, the prolific Hall gives us the third installment of the Elouise Norton detective novel series: Trail of Echoes.
Here, Norton is confronted with the dead body of Chanita Lords, a 13-year-old black girl, discovered in Bonner Park in Los Angeles. Chanita, despite the hardships of growing up poor in a rough neighborhood, was an honor student who excelled in art. The LAPD is ready to wrap up the homicide case, but Norton, while tracking down the killer, discovers several other missing girls who may have been killed by the same suspect. She realizes she is dealing with a serial killer who has been targeting poor black girls—and getting away with murder—for a long time.
One of Rachel Howzell Hall’s many strengths as a writer is her ability to alleviate the darkness of the murder investigation with the brightness of Detective Norton’s personal life. Norton’s core group of sister-friends are a consistent presence throughout the three novels, building depth and complexity with each addition to the series. They joke around and take selfies. They sing Prince lyrics. They help each other with personal and professional issues. It is so refreshing to see black women, normalized and living their lives together—at work, at home and at play.
But Norton’s life is far from perfect. The father who abandoned her family when she was still a child is back and determined to speak with Norton—showing up on her doorstep and calling her phone nonstop—despite her desire to have nothing to do with him. Plus, Norton spent the first two novels trying to come to terms with the fact that her husband, who had cheated on her in the past—and bought her a very nice Porsche as an apology for it—was most likely cheating again in the present. Norton, aware of the familiar signs of cheating but unable to face it and end her relationship, was tormented by his mind games and her own jealousy. By the end of the first novel, the reader was silently begging her to take a stand, leave her husband and find someone who appreciated her. In Trail of Echoes, Norton has finally done so and begun dating again.
While some may see Norton’s clinging to a failed relationship as a sign of weakness, this Achilles heel makes the otherwise commanding Norton a flawed, and relatable, human character. Rachel Howzell Hall is a master of drawing realistic, complicated characters. The language is pitch-perfect, fully inhabiting the tradition of the hard-boiled detective genre. “My ankle holster, stuffed now with my lunch gun, pinched my skin—death had a way of yanking you from Wonderland,” Detective Norton thinks to herself when she has to leave a lunch meeting early to go investigate a dead body. Here is the classic hard-boiled detective’s interior monologue—that “seen it all, slightly jaded savviness” that is a marker of the genre. Quite simply, in this series, Hall is hitting all the right notes.
Hall knows L.A.—and it shows. It is the author’s intimate knowledge of L.A.’s neighborhoods and intricate racial politics that makes the world of Elouise Norton believable. But most important, Hall knows how to craft character and spin a tangled whodunit. Trail of Echoes is a riveting, fast-paced and suspenseful addition to a strong, new series. A must-read for fans of the detective-mystery genre who have been longing for a compelling black female hero to root for.
Hope Wabuke is a Southern California-based writer and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.