A Taut, Multi-Cultural Thriller

Book Review: Most Wanted a most wanted novel

By Daniel A. Olivas
Published on LatinoLA: March 15, 2005

A Taut, Multi-Cultural Thriller

First-time ?suspense? novelist, Michele Martinez, comes with an impressive resume. Martinez is a graduate of Harvard and earned her law degree from Stanford; she also spent years as a federal prosecutor in New York City, is married with two children, and was born to a first generation Puerto Rican father (to whom she dedicates her novel), and a Russian Jewish mother. The photos included in the press packet (as well as the one that adorns the back of the book), show a trim, handsome woman who looks, well, how shall put it? Too young to be so accomplished. Now this high-achiever adds the novel ?Most Wanted? to her already impressive vitae. Does she succeed in this newest venture? In a word, yes.

Martinez introduces us to Melanie Vargas, a young Latina federal prosecutor in New York with an Ivey League education (sound familiar?). Melanie?s life revolves around Maya, her six-month-old daughter, while she tries to sort out the fact that her great-looking husband, Steve, has cheated on her. Despite Steve?s numerous mea culpas, Melanie needs time alone with her daughter to figure out where she wants her life to go. Her biggest fear is that she will end up like her parents?bitterly divorced?and Maya will grow up in a broken family. Melanie feels like a failure at home. The only place where she knows she can excel is at her job but even there, she often comes up against her tough boss, Bernadette DeFelice.

One evening when Maya can?t sleep, Melanie decides to put her daughter in a stroller and take a walk. She stumbles upon firefighters putting out a blaze at the posh townhouse of super lawyer, Jed Benson, a former prosecutor who made a mint in private practice. Melanie runs into an old friend and sometime babysitter, Sophie Cho, and asks her to take Maya while she goes into the crime scene to find out what happened. Sophie, who had done a remodel of the Benson mansion, agrees leaving Melanie to learn the horrifying circumstances of Jed?s death: he was gruesomely tortured by an attack dog, his daughter had several fingers cut off though she, for some reason, had not been killed, and the Benson housekeeper was brutally beaten but also survived. Who could have done this? Was it revenge at the hands of a felon who had been put away by Jed during his prosecutor days? Or was someone trying to get information out of Jed? Otherwise, why torture his daughter in front of him? Melanie wheedles her way into getting the case assigned to her. Not only will this give her a chance to help bring a sadistic murderer to justice, but she can prove herself once and for all with her supervisor, Bernadette. This could be a career-making case, no doubt.

But Melanie is also human. The FBI man who is assigned to work the investigation is one Dan O?Reilly, ruggedly handsome and clearly smitten with Melanie the moment he sees her. We are privy to Melanie?s vacillating feelings as she weighs saving her marriage (and perhaps her daughter?s happiness) on the one hand, and falling in love with a man who clearly appreciates her. As Melanie?s emotions are stretched almost to a breaking point, she has flashbacks of a vicious crime against her father which led to his abandoning his family and which apparently became the catalyst for Melanie?s choice of profession.

Because Jed?s daughter is far from communicative, the housekeeper, Rosario Sangrador, offers the best hope for identifying the thugs who broke into the Benson mansion that awful night. In one of the novel?s best passages, Melanie questions the frightened but canny Rosario as the investigation goes into full throttle. Rosario has much to offer and is willing to testify in front of the grand jury if she?s kept safe. And Melanie has hopes that the Benson daughter will eventually be as helpful. The investigation, of course, is anything but simple. Complications arise when it appears someone is leaking information to the killer putting the only two witnesses at risk. And the Benson widow is no help either. She doesn?t want her daughter questioned at all; she also appears to be a bit too icy in the face of her husband?s murder. Eventually, Melanie suspects that anyone with power or access is somehow connected to the murder even her FBI knight, Dan O?Reilly, as well as her best friend and Benson architect, Sophie. Throughout, we are treated to (and creeped out by) chapters that are in the voice of the killer who has turned torture into a sport and has a penchant for speaking about himself in the third person.

Though it is no surprise that Melanie gets her man (the murderer, that is), Martinez weaves together a fast-paced plot with almost never-ending twists, both in the murder investigation and in Melanie?s personal life. Martinez?s characters are well-drawn, believable and engaging. Martinez?s experience as a federal prosecutor also brings an authenticity to the murder investigation and political ramifications of high-profile cases. ?Most Wanted? is a tight, exhilarating suspense novel of murder, power, love and painful pasts. Martinez has created a memorable character in Melanie Vargas who will certainly appear again as she juggles a career fighting crime while attempting to maintain a halfway normal?and fulfilling?family life.

"Most Wanted"
By Michele Martinez
William Morrow/HarperCollins, New York, NY.
ISBN 0-06-072398-X, hardcover,
384 pp., $23.95, 2005

About Daniel A. Olivas:
Daniel's newest book, "Devil Talk: Stories," has been published by Bilingual Press. Visit his Web page at www.danielolivas.com.

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