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'Like A Sister' is noir for the media-struck generation

Mulholland Books

Kellye Garrett's stylish new thriller Like a Sister is noir for the media-struck generation.

When a beautiful Black reality TV star is found dead on a playground in the Bronx, the tabloid headlines and the police scream overdose, but the woman's sister is unconvinced.

The contours of the story are familiar, but Garrett's story departs from the usual scripts. For one thing, the multicultural cast and complicated Black celebrity family lend the story an edge. Lena Scott is a Columbia graduate student with a deliberately down-to-earth lifestyle that belies her rich and famous family connections. The dead girl is Desiree Pierce, Lena's more public, privileged and reckless half-sister. Lena and Desiree's father Mel Pierce, aka "Murder Mel," is a mega multi-millionaire with handcuffs tattooed on his wrist.

Desiree's sudden death underscores some hard truths about their family. Bouncing between disbelief and anger that "this was inevitable," Lena's feelings about her sister's death are a jumble. Her instincts say that her estranged sister was out of control, but not like this. The neighborhood and circumstances, even the drugs, feel wrong. Like Jess in Lucy Foley's The Paris Apartment or Mickey in Long Bright River, two novels that blend mystery and natural drama of complex family dynamics, Lena is faced with a discomfiting task: advocating on behalf of a sibling she loves but no longer knows. That awkward dynamic is set in the opening lines: "I found out my sister was back in New York from Instagram. I found out she'd died from the New York Daily News."

Lena's refusal to accept the official story and perfunctory police investigation are as much about coming to terms with who her sister really was as finding what or who killed her. So while the rest of the family jumps into scandal mitigation mode, Lena refuses to move on. Diving into her sister's world, she presses all the interested parties she can find, from Desiree's dealer to her artist ex-boyfriend, for insight.

This is Kellye Garrett's first thriller, but she's not new to crime fiction. She's published two previous novels, and her witty debut mystery Hollywood Homicide won a bounty of awards including the Agatha, Anthony, and Lefty for best first novel.

This book is darker, but Like a Sister retains some of the debut's quirky sensibility. Lena is the book's narrator, anchor and most distinctive asset. Garrett draws a laser-precise portrait of her as a series of contradictions: prickly and soft, hardened and vulnerable, estranged by choice, yet deeply grieving her sister. Solitary and self-reliant yet bruised by loneliness. As Lena recalls, "if my mother's parenting philosophy was Tough Love, then Mel's was No Love. Over the years, his visits became phone calls. Phone calls became nothing at all." Even with her grandmother and partner as surrogate parents, a sense of abandonment persisted.

Though all of Garrett's characters in Like a Sister are specific, there's a particular resonance in the portrait of Lena as a vulnerable woman in an ill- fitting "Super Black Woman Cape." It's a defense mechanism she inherited from her mother and was taught to don like armor: "Unlike the Angry Black Woman label so many tried to make us wear, Strong Black Woman was one we often gave ourselves." Lena's experiences are one dimension of the novel's exploration of race and identity. The Pierces' celebrity status brings attention, but the moment Desiree's body is discovered, institutional reactions to her death are colored by race as well as privilege.

Like a Sister's portrait of lives intertwined with social and mass media is also striking. With a cast of reality TV and Instagram influencers and hip-hop glitterati, the twisty plot uses the geography, industry and flavor of New York to advantage. Even "Murder Mel," a character easily reduced to caricature, has nuance and complexity. On the surface, he sounds like the infamous music mogul Suge Knight (incarcerated on charges of voluntary manslaughter until 2037). Like some real life execs, the fictional entrepreneur has been known to leverage his bad reputation for strategic gain:

"If [Mel's partner] Free was known for his in-your-face bars, then Mel was known for his in-your-face bravado. There wasn't an interview that didn't mention his 'reputation.' His quick fuse. His threats of ass beatings. His promises to end careers. I know because I read them all."

Mel's moral ambiguity is unsettling. But as in any good mystery, nothing is quite as it seems.

This novel also stands out stylistically. In a great example of voice intertwined with character, Lena's expressive first-person narration matches her creativity and restlessness. Her mind constantly pinballs between one thought and the next, putting what she's seeing and feeling into context with a river of cultural references, similes and metaphors. Walking uphill with her bike is like pulling along a "cranky toddler," and a conversation with her father is "facing off with Medusa. His expression was stone." Another metaphor compares Lena's emotional reaction to a surprising discovery: "My blood ran colder than an Alpha Phi Alpha chant," in reference to the historic Black fraternity. The voice is original and witty, even when the sheer volume of figures of speech get overwhelming.

Together, these elements of character and voice mesh with Like a Sister's explorations of race, class and family in an arresting combination.

A slow runner and fast reader, Carole V. Bell is a cultural critic and communication scholar focusing on media, politics and identity. You can find her on Twitter @BellCV.

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Carole V. Bell