A funny thing happened to me on the way to the bookshelf. Michele Martinez, in the short space of two novels, has become one of my favorite thriller writers, and her protagonist, federal prosecutor Melanie Vargas, one of my favorite characters. This was not entirely unexpected; Martinez's first novel, MOST WANTED, was an extremely impressive debut by any standard. She fulfills and surpasses the promise of that work with THE FINISHING SCHOOL, her sophomore effort.
I had a very minor quibble with MOST WANTED; federal prosecutors, for the most part, don't get as, uh, actively involved in their cases as Vargas seems to be. I of course understand why she does, within the context of a thriller novel. Who, after all, is going to read a book about someone who spends most of their days reading exhibits, turning pages, and trying not to upset stacks of files on their desk? In a book the federal prosecutor is going to be out hitting the street, fighting crime, kicking rear and taking names. It's the type of situation that creates the need for suspension of disbelief.
This is the reason that I fell in love with THE FINISHING SCHOOL (and in lust with Vargas). A few pages into the novel, Vargas's supervisor (the wonderfully and terminally oppressive Bernadette DeFelice) admonishes Vargas about getting "overly involved" in her investigations. Martinez's nod and wink to the foible of the genre is at once endearing and a hint of what is to come. "Overly involved" indeed. In more ways than one.
The finishing school of the title is Miss Holbrooke's School, a sprawling private institute of primary and secondary education for women. In the midst of a school fundraising drive, two teenaged students (one of them a Senator's daughter) are found dead as the result of apparent drug overdoses, and a third is missing. The investigation reveals that one of the students has been leading a tawdry double life, one that has led her into dangerous associations, including contact with New York's underground club scene. At the same time, the paths of the dead girls and their missing classmate lead back to the school and indirectly to the office of the school's headmistress, who has some secrets and an agenda of her own.
Meanwhile, Vargas's investigation brings her into contact with some colorful and dangerous characters, and also forces her to renew old acquaintances with Dan O'Reilly, last seen in MOST WANTED. The promising relationship between O'Reilly and Vargas has ended --- or has it? Apparently Vargas didn't feel that she had time for a relationship, given the responsibilities of single motherhood and her job. Martinez, by the way, pays remarkable attention to detail in every facet of THE FINISHING SCHOOL, and her accounts of Vargas's childcare difficulties --- including the wardrobe emergencies that came with them --- are a first-rate touch.
There is also a moment --- a very small moment --- near the end of the novel involving a paper clip. It is only a transitory scene, but it is absolutely perfect and ultimately essential in maintaining the illusion of reality that Martinez has created. With only two novels under her belt, she has mastered the ability to render intimate moments softly erotic without sacrificing either passion or elegance. Gentlemen, if you are puzzled by the question of what women like, and want, I would submit that the answer is contained within the pages of THE FINISHING SCHOOL.
This is an absorbing work, one that by turns will keep you reading furiously and absorbing carefully. And Vargas, exuding class as she does, is far more than a one-night literary stand. You'll want her back again and again. Highly recommended.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 30, 2007