Let me say this at the outset: Sibella Giorello is a true wordsmith who possesses all the gifts she needs to write excellent literary fiction. The lyrical quality of her writing style manages to break through even in this genre novel. Couple that with her dexterous handling of visual imagery, and you have the makings of a fine literary novelist.
In a genre novel, however, other elements are just as important as the author's style and ability to paint memorable word pictures. For the most part, Giorello handles these elements well enough --- but not without a few problems.
The suspense certainly satisfies in this third novel in Giorello's Raleigh Harmon series. In the previous two books --- THE STONES CRY OUT and THE RIVERS RUN DRY --- Harmon, an FBI agent, is shipped out to the agency's Seattle office following a falling out with her boss in the Richmond office. Now back in Richmond, Harmon finds herself back under the thumb --- and the metaphorical microscope --- of her former supervisor, Victoria Phaup. As a forensic geologist, Harmon is called out to the mansion of a prominent rap star whose efforts to occasionally avoid the celebrity spotlight by escaping to the Virginia countryside are shattered by a burning cross on his lawn. It's up to Harmon to analyze the soil and its deadly components to help find the perpetrators of what has become a high-profile hate crime. And Phaup is breathing down her neck all the while.
Meanwhile, Harmon's personal life is fraught with complications, not the least of which is her reunion with her former boyfriend, DeMott Fielding. Then there's her borderline mentally ill mother, Nadine, and assorted members of her family and DeMott's. Of the lot, Nadine is the most interesting; Giorello handles her emotional and mental problems deftly and realistically, and creates a likable, well-rounded character in the process.
Neither likable nor well-rounded, Victoria Phaup may be the novel's biggest drawback. For most of the book, she's so contentious and spiteful that it's difficult to see her as a real person. And Harmon is so deferential in her presence that it's difficult to see her as an FBI agent. Harmon may have grown up in the South, but her many "Yes, Ma'am" replies, even if she meant them sarcastically, make her sound like a third-grader in the principal's office. It's as if she shrinks in size when she's around Phaup.
Another problem is author intrusion, such as an irritating passage about the emptiness of self-help books, which, however true, felt like the author's opinion rather than her character's interior thoughts. The same holds true for a passage about the FBI's pre-9/11 challenges in screening potential terrorists; Harmon's supposedly interior thoughts sound more like a defense of the agency straight from the mouth of one of the federal surveillance agents Giorello interviewed in her research.
And yet another problem, not entirely Giorello's, is that readers new to the series are likely to be confused, because much of the backstory isn't clearly presented. Series editors would do well to have a fresh pair of eyes read subsequent books in a series to point out the holes that need to be filled by inserting critical information from previous books.
But back to the good stuff. Harmon's investigation takes her deep into the worlds of the Ku Klux Klan, the Russian mob, the diamond industry, the drug culture, and to a lesser extent, the recording industry. If those seem like wildly disparate environments, rest assured they work together --- or in conflict with each other or in no relation at all with each other --- in the skillful hands of the author. This is a suspense novel, after all, and that requires a red herring or two. Giorello manages to keep all the red herrings under control and avoid playing unfair tricks on the reader.
In fact, "controlled" is an apt description of the novel. Giorello has such a finely tuned sense of control that neither the main plot nor any of the subplots ever get away from her. One result is an exceptionally balanced story that keeps the main investigation front and center but also gives the appropriate amount of attention to the rest of Harmon's life. That includes her faith, which Giorello presents with a subtlety that only the severest critics of religious fiction could disparage. THE CLOUDS ROLL AWAY could share bookstore shelf space with mainstream suspense novels while feeling right at home in the Christian fiction section.
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on March 16, 2010