Cleveland, which serves as the setting for Elizabeth Becka's debut novel TRACE EVIDENCE, is no stranger to serial murderers. Jeffrey Dahmer was born and raised in a small community near Cleveland, and in the more remote past, Eliot Ness was stymied in his efforts to uncover the identity of a killer who stalked the city's (then) clandestine gay community.
While TRACE EVIDENCE concerns itself with the hunt for a serial murderer, the focus of the book is Evelyn James, a forensic trace evidence specialist who is investigating a series of bizarre, terrifying murders. The first involves the discovery of a young woman's body in a river, her feet encased in cement. The second victim, the daughter of one of Cleveland's most prominent citizens, becomes even more significant when a connection is discovered between the two victims.
James is drawn into the case on both a professional and personal level, and she finds some unexpected conflicts arising from the opposing loyalties that manifest themselves during the course of the investigation. Gradually James comes to the realization that her own daughter may have a connection to the murders --- and quite possibly could be the next victim.
James is a believable character, more so than some of her fictional peers. Despite being her first novel, Becka's handling of James is extremely proficient, especially with respect to her ability to make James walk the fine line between tough and tender in her professional and personal lives. Her descriptions of the problems faced by working single parents are right on the mark; somehow, things get done, even if they are not always done well. While Becka's characterization of James is first-rate, it is the plot that really shines. She moves the story along in perfectly paced doses, ratcheting up the suspense by slow but steady degrees.
Becka, a Cleveland expatriate who now resides in warmer climates, pulls off the Herculean task of capturing the essence of the city --- one that ebbs, flows and surges against its boundaries --- while effectively utilizing it as a backdrop for a tightly written, suspenseful story.
TRACE EVIDENCE is a fine introduction not only to Becka but to James as well. There's enough crime on the North Coast to keep both busy for some time to come. Recommended.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 12, 2011