Here’s a book for Real Change readers who are mystery lovers. Rita Weinstein’s “Profit and Lo$$” looks to be the creation of a new series about a private investigator, set in Seattle. This offering has a good setup: a laid-off office worker, a food bank that needs a new building, an evil developer, the murder of a woman camping in her car and a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder as a love interest. The only thing it’s missing, in fact, is a vendor of a street newspaper (or, possibly, the edgy and eccentric founding director of that paper), but maybe Weinstein could put them in the sequel.
Crista Foxx is the laid-off office manager who’s just about run through her savings and starts going to the local food bank, where she discovers that the poor and homeless aren’t really that different from her. Everybody has a history and a story. “For all the years she drew a salary, she wrote a check every Christmas to feed the hungry and homeless somewhere in the world. The idea that she might someday become one of them never once crossed her mind.”
Crista starts volunteering at the food bank and finds a sense of community that she never knew was possible. She becomes good friends with an older woman, Arden, who once was rich but now is living in her car, and invites her to crash on her couch.
Arden disappears one night, leaving a note not to wait up for her. Her body turns up a couple of days later. Crista, who coincidentally has convinced a sleazy PI to hire her to organize his office, decides to investigate the murder with the help of the veteran, Matt, who’s also just started volunteering at the food bank. In an apparent coincidence, a developer offers to donate a new, but unoccupied, office building to the food bank: “Kurt Magnussen was the biggest construction magnate in the region. ... Wolf Den, his construction company, was the only one in the area still hiring because somehow his projects were the only ones that still had financing, which resulted in him being labeled a working-man’s hero, although there had been rumors ... having to do with payoffs to inspectors, cheating of vendors, and substandard construction — none of which mattered when jobs were scarce.”
You don’t have to be a regular reader of mysteries to know that at least some of these events must be related to the crime. In fact, “Profit and Lo$$” is less of a mystery than a thriller, because Weinstein leaves little doubt from early on who the murderer is and who’s behind him. The motive is a little more murky until near the end, so there is some suspense involved.
The book has a strong plot and sense of locality — the food bank is clearly located in Ballard and the murder takes place at a local marina. The year is 2007 or 2008, right after the financial crash, and it’s a recognizable Seattle, though Weinstein is a little weaker in one character’s foray outside the city (she describes a forest containing redwoods, but redwoods don’t grow around here except in city parks).
The weakest part of the book is its characters, who tend to be unambiguously and recognizably good or bad. That’s not unusual in this genre, but often an author will add some doubt about which category key people fall into, which can add to the suspense. Weinstein does provide a fair amount of backstory for some of the characters, which keeps them from being too stereotypical, but the backstories don’t tend to be integrated into the plot. In particular, she could have done more with the mysteries in Matt’s history — Weinstein plays with that a little, but then he just explains it, rather than Crista coming on it bit by bit.
One of the most opaque characters is Crista herself — we know very little about her except her work history. Perhaps this will also be something that Weinstein takes up in the likely sequel, because at the end, after he loses his license in another unlikely coincidence, Crista’s boss sells his business to her and she and Matt hang out a shingle for their investigation agency. In case you didn’t get it, there’s also a reference to Nora and Nick Charles, a married investigative duo in “The Thin Man” series of movies from the 1930s and ’40s.
“Profit and Lo$$” is a good read. And it’s nice to see a grittier version of Seattle than the high-tech, world-class city that’s been rising all around us, although Weinstein’s North End location, of course, misses the ethnic diversity that’s come to the city over the past 30 years.
Still, while “Profit and Lo$$” is set almost a decade ago, not much has changed in terms of the people who are left out of the tech boom, or, worse, forced out of the city they’ve lived in all their lives.
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