This follow-up to “Loyalty,’’ Ingrid Thoft’s 2013 debut, features Boston-based private investigator Fina Ludlow in her second multistranded adventure. Part of a well-to-do, hard-headed clan of personal-injury lawyers, Fina is the lead investigator for her family’s firm, but often at odds with their keep-it-all-in-the-family approach; she relishes the independence — not to mention the power — inherent in her job description. When one curious character asks her what it’s like to be a P.I., Fina responds without hesitation: “’It’s great. Never boring. I don’t have to work in an office. I carry a gun.’ ”
The main investigation kicks off with the potential of one kind of media circus — an acrimonious lawsuit challenging the anonymity of sperm donors’ identities — that quickly spirals into a very real different one. When crusading community activist Renata Sanchez hires the Ludlow firm to uncover the identity of her 17-year-old daughter’s father, Fina’s search hits a jarring note: The long-ago donor is a wealthy and well-known entrepreneur, Hank Reardon, who, it turns out, is similarly the birth father of several other kids.
Before you can say, paternity lawsuits and backdated child support, Hank is found clobbered on the head and irrefutably dead. Fina’s father, Carl, is gleefully on board with dollar signs in his eyes: “Murder,” he informs his disgusted daughter, “means passion and passion means lawsuits.”
Complicating matters even further, the properly-acknowledged son of Hank and his first wife, Juliana, hires Fina to solve the killing. As part of her inquiry Fina must wade through quite a crew of crusty characters: Renata, who, a friend tells Fina, “has a talent for setting things in motion with little thought for the consequences”; a handful of young-adult offspring who have just discovered their father’s high-profile identity; and the wonderfully arrogant executive of Heritage Cryobank, the institute that originally managed Hank’s sperm donations.
In a parallel case for Fina that fits intriguingly into the whole family/identity/DNA-driven themes, her adopted friend Risa is contacted by a mysterious woman in Maine, claiming to be Risa’s long-lost aunt.
Like any standard-issue P.I., Fina’s got a chip on her shoulder the size of a boulder and a sympathetic but straight-talking support system. Her well-utilized network includes not one but two friends-with-benefits, Milloy and Christian (one is a masseuse, the other a cop); the small-time but rising underworld-crime figure, Dante; Frank, the former P.I. who taught Fina everything she knows and is more of a father figure to her than Carl; Ellen, a preppy computer whiz; and Stacy, a technician in the medical examiner’s office whose “physical appearance — hair shorn close to her skull, a plethora of tattoos, and a collection of small hoops and studs in her earlobes — belied her inner softie.”
Fina gets beaten up on a regular basis by folks who would rather she keep her nose out of their affairs, trades her family’s bountiful professional sports season tickets for information, and subsists on an astonishing array of junk food — Mallomars, fluffernutters, M&Ms, Pop-Tarts and powdered doughnuts — and a serious dearth of vegetables.
For Fina, apparently, it really is all in the genes: “She couldn’t complain about her looks and considered them one of the perks of being a Ludlow. A clear complexion, high cheekbones, and a wide smile served her well, not to mention her rapid-fire metabolism. Her appearance gave her an advantage, not only in her job but in life in general, and she tried to use her powers for good.’’
One or two overly-cliched asides aside, there’s plenty of fun to be had on Fina’s sophomore outing, including a cheerful blast-from-the-past nod to none other than Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack and Quack, Boston’s most famous ducklings.Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.