A version of this review first appeared at Reader Unboxed.
In Lisa Black’s Defensive Wounds, the fourth in her series on the adventures of forensic scientist and crime scene investigator Theresa McLean, Theresa continues working cases and raising her teen aged daughter in Cleveland, Ohio. Her work often overlaps with that of her cousin Frank, who is a detective on Cleveland’s police force. When successful but hated attorney Marie Corrigan is found murdered at a conference for defense attorneys, held at the swanky Ritz Hotel, Theresa’s workplace suddenly becomes the same as her daughter Rachel’s – who is an attendant at the hotel’s front desk. Before Marie’s murder can be solved, others also take place at the Ritz, and Marie begins to think that the danger is closer and more directly linked to her daughter than she would like for it to be.
This was my first book in the series and I found that it was easy to get into and to pick up the flow of the character’s lives. I empathized with Theresa as a working mom, busy with a challenging career and yet worried about her daughter Rachael, who is very independent. She’s trying hard to be as hands off as possible. In that sense the storyline was engaging, and I enjoyed how well documented Theresa’s work is in the book. Each step in the forensics and the reasoning behind it is carefully laid out. Theresa is a professional and thorough in her work. In the course of the book two mysteries emerge as the body count rises, and I guessed different combinations of if and how they might be connected as I was reading.
I had some issues with the structure of the novel. Seemingly this series is about Theresa and how she manages to balance her grisly work life and its required long days and heavy absences with being there for her daughter. I was thrown for a loop when the narrative switches suddenly to her cousin Frank’s perspective. It first happens without much warning, and their chapters alternated in some places more than in others. My guess is that he serves to show the other side of the case – interviews with witnesses and such. Theresa as an investigator is only going to be so involved, but it was very strange because she interacted with other officers who could have potentially filled that role without so abruptly changing the POV. The misogyny also ran high. I get that defense attorneys are not popular, defend people for heinous crimes, and are indeed much maligned, but poor Marie seemed to get the worst of it. I got weary of hearing referred to in pretty vile terms. Realistic? Maybe. But the frequency seemed abusive to this reader after awhile. When I put Defensive Wounds down, there were many times when I was in no hurry to pick it back up.
Mystery readers who enjoy getting into the nitty gritty of the forensic science books will likely find a lot to appreciate in Defensive Wounds. The mystery wraps up neatly in the end, with some aspects of the storyline more easily guessed than others, and the next mystery potentially set up in the last pages. I think it’s a bit hard to be fresh in a genre that relies so heavily on formula, and while it’s a solid murder mystery read, there isn’t much here that was a surprise.