Woman with a Gun by Phillip Margolin is one of those books that will leave you, as a reviewer, torn by your sense of writing and your sense of story. And yes they are two separate things.
Budding and frustrated young novelist Stacey Kim, takes lunch from her mundane job as a legal assistant to visit an art museum which is featuring work by the famed photographer, Kathy Moran. It is there she sees and becomes obsessed with one of the photographs on display. It is a black and white, rear view shot of a woman, standing on the beach, the tide coming in, dressed in a white dress, holding a large six shooter behind her back.
Kim is intrigued by the photograph and researches the history behind it. In doing so she uncovers a mystery that has spanned fifthteen years in the lives of those involved.
The woman in the photograph is Megan Cahill and the photo was taken by Kathy Moran. On the night of Megan’s wedding, when her new husband is found in their beach house, beaten and then shot to death. Megan is wondering the beach in a daze, holding the gun. Megan is suspected in her husband’s death but without evidence, is never tried. The mystery is never solved.
Kim begins to contact all the parties involved and uncovers histories and secrets between all of them. Megan, her ex-husband and now her dead husband. Kathy and the special prosecutor on loan to help investigate the case. Also both of their relationship with a drug dealing felon recently released.
As she digs deeper she finds that everyone has a different opinion on Megan and the murder of her husband. Is she guilty? Is she innocent? How much does Kathy Moran really know? Layer by layer, Kim begins to peel back the secrets of the Woman with a Gun.
This novel is a throwback to the old Gregory McDonald mysteries of a few decades ago. Characters as rich in personality as they are shrouded in their own personal drama. A horrible crime that on the surface seems cut and dry, but as you step into the darkness of the murder you find that nothing is quite what it seems. Told in flashbacks and through the narrative of various characters, Woman with a Gun ties together neatly as it builds to its finish.
And there is the issue.
Woman with a Gun ties together too neatly and too quickly. The subplots of who is sleeping with who and who is hiding what are at times far more interesting than the main plot itself. Which is too bad because this may be one of the most original plots in a murder mystery I have read in a long time. But there is a certain amount of suspension of belief required in this story and its not with the plot but with the actions and dialogue of some of the characters.
A District Attorney known for winning and aggressive tactics makes a blunder of epic incompetent proportions that a new defense attorney takes advantage of; resulting in putting a murdering drug dealer back on the streets. All because she is so damn sexy that he couldn’t think of anything but screwing her throughout his investigation?
A disgraced lawyer who takes photos as a hobby and becomes famous as a photographer overnight?
A first time writer who becomes inspired by a photograph and uproots herself and her life to pursue a story about the photograph. And then all the lawyers and witnesses and police are not only willing, but make time to talk to her about the old case. When she has no credibility as a journalist? She is even given the case files because with her background she might find something out in the old case that all the professionals could not? And of course she does.
Woman with a Gun is in too many ways like an old seventies private eye or police drama. Like Columbo. Streets of San Francisco. The Rockford files. What a terrific mystery! But don’t worry, as hopeless as it looks now, there are only ten more minutes in the hour left so you know they’ll figure it all out soon!
But hey, I loved the freakin’ Rockford Files!
So that is where as a reviewer I am left in a lurch. The writing itself leaves quite a bit to be desired but story…dammit!…story. This is really a great story! And for that alone I am able to forgive all else.
Woman with a Gun is a great story and a good read. It won’t win a Pulitzer but its a load of fun!