REVIEW: The Red Chameleon by Erica Wright

Reviewed by Kristen Valentine

18476769Private investigator Kathleen Stone has a lot of associates: Kate, Kathy, Katya, Kiki, Keith. Notice a pattern? They’re all one and the same, thanks to the superior skills of Vondya, Kathleen’s Brighton Beach wig-maker.

A former cop who worked deep undercover in the Magrelli crime family, Kathleen is now using her ability to morph into any persona on working divorce cases. It might not be as exciting as her days on the force, but she’s grateful for a slower, less dangerous pace.

Or is she? No matter—Kathleen is about to find herself back in the hot seat whether she likes it or not, when the man she’s supposed to be tailing winds up dead in the restroom of a swank bar while Kathleen (or Kathy, that is; she’s the one in the stunning red wig) is blithely drinking upstairs.

Afraid to cash the newly widowed (and newly very, very rich) Gloria Kramer’s check until she proves its not blood money, Kathleen starts nosing around the murder case. This brings her into the crosshairs of Detective Ellis Dekker, who was Kathleen’s best friend in college. Old tensions flare up as the two alternate between butting heads and working together to close the Kramer murder case, and old wounds are reopened as it starts to look like the murder is connected to the Magrellis. On top of that, Kathleen isn’t sure if she’s falling for Ellis, or if her heart belongs to Marco, another old friend and undercover chameleon. And she’s also busy training a new assistant, Meeza, a gorgeous receptionist from a strict Indian family who has decided to leave the reception desk unattended and pursue detecting full-time. Kathleen balances it all with humor and, if not grace, then at least admirable determination, because in an uncertain world, only one thing is for sure: the red chameleon doesn’t give up.

The Red Chameleon is the first of a fun new series. The writing is sharp and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, and Kathleen (et al.) is a highly likable protagonist. The supporting cast is strong as well, forming a fresh but believable world. I had a hard time with the plausibility of Kathleen not wanting to cash her client’s check until she proves Gloria’s innocence; natural curiosity seems like a better motivator for the chronically nosy Kathleen. But the biggest miss here falls in Wright’s decision not to fully explore one of the most compelling aspects of the story—Kathleen is so accustomed to playing a part, wearing a disguise, and pretending to be someone, that she doesn’t entire know who she, Kathleen Stone, is supposed to be anymore. Wright hints at it here and there, with Kathleen looking at her un-wigged reflection in a mirror and feeling startled, exposed, insecure. But it’s just a hint, when something this interesting could define the tone of the entire novel rather than just popping up here and there.

The Red Chameleon works without the existentialist exploration, don’t get me wrong. It’s fun and breezy, and it’s probably exactly the story that Wright set out to tell. But there could be a deeper, darker, even more compelling story underneath Kathleen’s wisecracks. Especially as the series continues, I hope we get more than just a taste. There is a lot to like here anyway, especially in a genre that is dominated by men writing about men. Kathleen and her many faces (or, wigs) are welcome on my bookshelf anytime.