Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung
V.I. Warshawski walks into her office to find it trashed, the backdoor is wrecked, a wristband is left on the step, and her cousin is missing. That is how Hardball begins. Cut back a little. You can do it with CCTV – the tape shows two men with Petra entering the building. It looks like she is helping them, but the camera angle could be hiding the arm up her back. So perhaps you cannot go back in trust. That is going to hurt V. I. because she is on a case to find a man who went missing in the race riots of the late ‘60s, and if she cannot recover time, if she cannot trust the record, who or what can she trust? She would like to trust her cousin, just as she would have trusted her father, the old Chicago cop, but events do not make that easy.
From that trashed office, visited “in media res”, the story goes back, recounting how a good deed to a vagrant, leads a nun to ask V. I. to take on a missing persons job for a pair of elderly ladies, whose ward had been a community activist in the sixties, though the commune has become a gang and the neighbourhood a ghetto today.
Meanwhile, as V. I. tries to re-establish herself financially after the disasters of 2005’s Fire Sale, she finds herself unwilling host to a much younger cousin who has moved to Chicago to work in the Democratic Party machine over the summer. Unwilling witnesses, firebombs, murdered nuns and V. I. herself a victim of arson follow, without her having any idea why.
Hardball has some things in common with 1988’s Toxic Shock, which also involved going back to the old neighbourhood and events out of the past, but that did not have the time-play found here. And it did not have the further twenty years of social destruction. Perhaps overlong for a private eye novel, there are a couple of places where things feel rushed – there’s a chapter where V. I. is visiting the nuns while an apartment on another floor is being raided, which seems to be half woman-in-peril, half Keystone Kops, for instance, which is probably not a good combination.
It also has, though, deep veins of history, good and bad, running from V.I.’s childhood through to the present day. It is chilling to think that men who were given forty year prison sentences in the ‘sixties are out now. Chilling not because they are free, but because so much time has passed, so much iron has entered their souls, and so much of the trouble then is still live today. Like a rubber ball it comes bouncing back.