I first met Candace Starr, a trying-hard-to-retire-and-not-quite-managing-it hitwoman, in ‘The Starr Sting Scale’. Having an assassin as your main character is a tough pitch. I’d expected either to get a fatalistic anti-hero or a witty, lighthearted, Stephanie Plum gone over to the dark side. I got neither.
Candace Starr is a killer and she’s good at it. How she got there is as much about pain and betrayal and the criminal world she was born into as it is to do with Candace’s innate character but Candace knows you can’t blame mommy and daddy forever, especially when daddy was killed by the mob and mommy ran off when you were too young to know what was going on. So, she plays the hand she’s dealt, keeps her distance from people, drinks a lot, tries never to show fear and only kills people if she has to or if they really deserve it.
I ended the book thinking ‘Wow, what a find!’ so when I saw the second book was due, I pre-ordered it. By the time I was two chapters in I decided to kill my plans for the day and spend it reading ‘Starr Sign’. It was a well-written rollercoaster lubricated by dry humour, close observation of people and propelled by the energy of a central character who judges everyone harshly, especially herself.
Candace isn’t an anti-hero. She’s not a good person doing bad things for the right reasons. She tries not to get involved at all if she can help it. But, when family is involved, you’ve sometimes got to do things. Even if you’re tempted to do all the wrong things.
In this story, Candace gets dragged into a confrontation with the Detroit mob as she reluctantly looks for the mother she barely knew on behalf of a half-sister she’s only just discovered exists.
The plot is clever. It feints like a skilled boxer and I fell for it every time, so the ending came as a surprise.
All the characters are well-drawn from the psychopathically violent to the instinctively nice. I rather liked that Candace had more difficulty figuring out the two people who were being nice to her (a guy she has sex with and who then got swept up in the action because he likes Candace – go figure and a younger sister with a mean mouth but who still expects to be loved) than the ones who were threatening her (family members mostly).
There’s a nice balance between wit, action and character development that kept me engaged.
I’m sure I missed some of the Canadian jokes but I found myself having to resist the urge to highlight something on each page. Even so, I’d like to share my favourite quotes to give you a flavour of being in Candace’s head.
Here’s Candace at the start of the book, hungover and ready to drink more:
“My daily drinking is just a means to an end. I’m not sure what that end is, but I intend not to be sober when I meet it.”
Candace’s reaction to meeting a vegetarian:
“Vegetarians are supposed to live longer, but I think it just feels that way to them because their life sucks so much without meat.”
Candace going back to the morgue where she’s already caused a scene:
“Luckily, the woman at the receptionist desk is also new. The bitch I dealt with last time treated me too much like the white trash criminal that I am. But when I give this new woman my name, she is either too bored or too clueless to acknowledge what kind of person I am. Then again, she might just be nice. I have trouble telling the difference.”
And finally, Candace’s reaction to having to figure out how to deal with someone who wants to be her friend:
“Friendship, much like family, seems to come with too many attachments — like a vacuum cleaner too complicated to use.”
I had great fun with this book and I’m hoping this is going to be one of those ‘book-a-year-for-ten-years’ series that becomes part of my annual calendar.