License to Lie
304 pages 2014
Satori Kindle $3.99 Trade paper $10.96
A fast pace, an unlikely pair of accomplices, short chapters with alternating points of view, a variety of crimes—from fraud to kidnapping to murder—and a nascent romance that threatens to get in the way are the main elements making the Southern California novel License to Lie, by Terry Ambrose, a top notch mystery.
A sketchy synopsis might tell too much and would not explain how this novel moves along and engages you, so let’s examine the way the story is put together.
It’s fast. The story consumes only a few days and each of the two protagonists have multiple challenges unrelated to each other—until they meet. Strange characters and surprises, some menacing, some puzzling, come along quickly. The prose is lean without being emaciated. Settings, people and action are described with enough detail to create good images and put you in the scenes.
My insides churned with a dangerous combination of rage and fear that pumped my system full of adrenaline and dulled my senses.
The unlikely protagonists are Roxy Tanner, a young but not inexperienced fraud artist who pulled her first con at age 8 and Skip Cosgrove a consulting criminologist with a code. Tanner, a wily, ambitious (and good looking) blonde, plans to escape San Diego (and the US) with $5 million she’s scammed from unsuspecting investors. She imagines her future in a bikini on a Caribbean beach. She just needs one more score to push her ill-gotten nest egg to the magic five mil mark. But just as Tanner is about to make her move, her father is kidnapped and a ransom demanded.
Cosgrove, the other half of the mismatched pair, has just wrapped up a daunting case that landed him on local TV news. As he explains to the camera how he managed to return a missing teen to his parents, Tanner and her mother see Cosgrove on the news. They decide to hire him to help find Tanner’s father.
The plot takes several twists, made all the more absorbing because the story unfolds in 61 short chapters, many with page-turning endings that drag you into the next chapter.
But you’re not always rewarded with a solution to Tanner’s or Cosgrove’s immediate crisis because the chapters alternate points of view. Half the chapters are written in first person from Tanner’s viewpoint and the other half are third-person narratives with Cosgrove as the point-of-view character. This combination of first- and third-person narrators is not uncommon, but it was nonetheless initially jarring. The speed with which the plot progresses, however, dominates your attention and the POVs become an integral part of the story telling.
For example, Tanner might be on the verge of danger, but the chapter ends and the reader then follows Cosgrove who may be in a different part of town with his own troubles, unaware of Tanner’s situation. Alternating chapters between two point-of-view-characters is effective to keep the action and the suspense flowing. (Full disclosure: I use alternating chapters—with a male and female protagonist, but all in third person—in my mystery, Death in Nostalgia City, and its upcoming sequel, so obviously I like the technique.)
Many and varied crimes form other pieces of the License to Lie puzzle. Although there’s some shooting and other bits of violence, it’s the fraud and tracking the money that are most interesting.
Possible romantic entanglement is always present, though usually in the background. It’s definitely not love at first sight, but both characters are intrigued. “What was it about this woman that he found so damned desirable?” Cosgrove thinks about a third of the way through the book.
Tanner is the greater risk-taker and smart mouth of the pair, her interior and exterior dialog providing tension and sometimes humor. When she meets an eccentric land lady she thinks, “Her make up wasn’t too terribly overdone—for a hooker.”
Finally, looking at the structure, License to Lie does not pin all its entertainment value and suspense on the denouement. It’s a mystery that rewards the reader all the way along.
The second book in this series, Con Game, is also available.