Title: Black Ice (the 3rd Jill Jackson novel)
Author: Leah Giarratano
Publisher: Random House 
Length: 323 pages
Jill Jackson is working undercover as Krystal Peters in Sydney’s Fairfield. In a long term operation she’s gathering intelligence on the area’s drug dealers and their suppliers in an effort to help clean up they city’s drug scene. At the same time Serendipity (Seren) Templeton is due to be released from prison after spending more than 12 months in jail for a drug related crime she did not commit. All she wants is to be reunited with her young son. And to extract revenge from the man responsible for her imprisonment. There are other forces at play too: Jill’s sister Cassie, a top class fashion model, has a new boyfriend and is living the high life in the harbour city and a young Chemistry student is learning that you can’t always stop what you start.
I’m sure part of the meaning of the title of this book relates to the drug at the heart of the tale. But as I started reading I was reminded of the winter I spent in the North-East of the US (i.e. a real winter as opposed to its rather laughable cousin we have here in Adelaide). As someone new to walking and driving in the conditions I was warned often of the black ice which was virtually transparent and so invisible until you were right on top of it (which in my case generally resulted in falling over or sliding off the road). There are elements of this story that are hidden in the same way: Jill’s undercover alter-ego whose personality is very different from Jill’s, Seren’s second persona which she uses to embark on the revenge she’s been plotting for months. Even air-headed Cassie, towards the end of the book, shows hidden depths. The unpredictable way all three of these strong female characters are revealed over the course of the story is utterly captivating.
It’s always the characters I love most about Giarratano’s books and this time I think it’s Serendipity who will stay with me after the rest of the book starts to fade. Her life of abuse, teenage pregnancy without any support, and betrayal when the one good thing that’s ever happened to her turns sour is painfully but beautifully depicted. In what might be a new record I was crying by page 38 when her two cellmates turned on her. Then each other. From that point on all I wanted to know was how would life treat Seren and how, or if, she would cope.
Jill is more mature in this book and at times takes a back seat to the other characters although she’s still quite a presence and it is interesting to watch her behaviour change and normalise over time. Aside from her and Seren there are Giarratano’s usual assortment of odd but memorable bit players who manage to leave lasting impressions even if they only appear for a few lines or a few pages. I won’t forget poor Damien who should have known better than to experiment or the nastily bureaucratic parole officer any time soon. And in this book the city itself plays a strong role. Two of its sides, rich and privileged versus limited by poverty, are shown inhabiting the same physical space yet practically operating as if on separate planets and it has quite a realistic feel for this former Sydney-sider.
Rather than answering the question ‘who committed that crime’ this book seems instead to be pondering the reasons why crimes happen and so is far less of a police procedural than its predecessors. Although some of the scenarios were completely foreign to my middle class existence with my happy childhood memories I found myself often wondering what I would have done in the scenarios being described. Although ‘turning to a jelly-like wreck’ is the most likely answer for most instances in this book I always enjoy reading that offers me any kind of vicarious living. And although parts of the book are bleak it’s not uniformly so. Call me an old softie if you like but I enjoyed it more because of that: there are limits to how much bleakness I want in my life.
I probably shouldn’t have liked this book. At least in part it’s about the drug scene (almost my least favourite plot theme ever for reasons I won’t bore anyone with) and, more importantly, it’s quite a departure from its much-loved predecessors. I was anticipating more of the same from Black Ice as I had enjoyed about the two earlier Jill Jackson novels: the creepiest of villains and a put-upon but valiant heroine. I didn’t have to hide under a blanket once here and the heroine wasn’t really who I expected her to be. However, despite that departure, or perhaps because of it, I found the book an emotional and satisfying read. It has retained the essence of what made the first two books great: wonderfully drawn characters and an exquisite build-up of tension towards the climax. But it’s also taken me somewhere unexpected, given me new ideas to think about. A thoroughly great read that I’d recommend to both fans of the previous books and people new to the series.
My rating 5/5
Having raved about Leah Giarratano’s first two books (Vodka Doesn’t Freeze and Voodoo Doll) I was contacted by Leah a couple of weeks ago to ask if I would like a copy of her new book (absolutely no strings attached). While supremely chuffed at the contact and excited to get my hands on a pre-release copy I was also a little worried: what would I say if I didn’t like it? Anyone who has known me more than about 3 days knows I am not good at hiding my feelings. Would I be able to say nothing at all? I can tell you I breathed quite a sigh of relief as I closed the book and realised I wouldn’t have to deal with that particular social awkwardness .
At the time of posting this I haven’t been able to locate any other pre-release reviews of the book but feel free to leave a link in the comments section if you have one.