It was simple happenstance that I read EYES OF THE INNOCENT by Brad Parks when I did. I have been involved recently in a story that appeared in a local newspaper and as a result spent some personal time with a reporter. Thus it was a week of newsroom by day and Parks's novel by night. This follow-up to FACES OF THE GONE is set partly in the offices of the Newark Eagle-Examiner, a New Jersey daily newspaper that is struggling but still lively, due in no small part to the work of investigative reporter Carter Ross.
Parks, a former reporter himself, knows the Newark beat all too well; as a result, the narrative, told in the first-person voice of Ross, is informed with a streetwise dry wit balanced with compassion and humanity. FACES OF THE GONE won the Nero and Shamus awards; if anything, EYES OF THE INNOCENT is a better book than its predecessor, one that will firmly ensconce Parks's name on many must-read lists.
Ross has been assigned to write a follow-up story concerning a tragic fire that claimed the lives of two children. He is unhappy with the assignment for two reasons. First, he is being directed from the on-high pinnacle of Harold Brodie, a seasoned editor at the paper, to turn the article into a de facto feature on the dangers of space heaters, whether they caused the fire or not. Secondly, he is to cover the story with Lauren, a recent graduate of Vanderbilt who is interning at the Eagle-Examiner. Lauren's nickname in the newsroom is "Sweet Thang," and she has a major crush on him. Ross feels that she's way too young for him and perhaps too intense in her approach to the job. Besides, he already has one woman pursuing him --- who happens to be one of the paper's editors --- and does not want to make his life any more complicated than it already is. The order for the pairing, though, has again come from Brodie, who is a golfing buddy of Lauren's father.
Ross, reluctantly towing Lauren along, begins his due diligence on the story by visiting the scene of the fire. While going through the ruins of the house, they encounter Akilah Harris, the distraught mother of the two boys. Lauren surprises Ross by getting Harris to open up to them; Harris tells the pair a tragic story of how a mortgage rate reset caused her to have to work two jobs in order to make payments, forcing her to leave her children alone in the evening, so that they were without supervision when the fire occurred.
It is a story worthy of a front-page feature until two things happen: a prominent though shady city councilman suddenly goes missing, and almost everything that Harris told Ross and Lauren turns out to be untrue. Further events, including some dogged research by Lauren, uncover a tie between Harris and the missing councilman, which puts Harris and Lauren in mortal danger. Ross, accompanied by as unlikely a team of rescuers as you will encounter, speeds to the rescue. The result is a startling conclusion consisting of a chain of events that not only resolve a mystery involving bribery, corruption and urban house-flipping, but also sets up a potential plot thread for the next book in the series.
There is a perplexing puzzle that winds its way through EYES OF THE INNOCENT that mystery aficionados will enjoy and appreciate. But it's the relationship between Ross and Lauren that provides a mighty assist in propelling the book. As is demonstrated in one scene in particular, Lauren is strongly attracted to Ross, while Ross is a decent and admirable guy who bucks what now passes for conventional wisdom. All I will tell you is that fathers of daughters would want them to be attracted to guys like Ross for any number of reasons. You'll find them all in EYES OF THE INNOCENT.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 28, 2011