Lalli’s debut thriller brings hard-boiled grit to modern murder mystery
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Even though S.C. Lalli has practised law, it is only with her latest release that the veteran novelist turned her pen to crime fiction. The Vancouver-based writer completed parts of her legal education in New York before returning to Canada, and she may have drawn on some of those experiences when outlining the page-turning plot of Are You Sara?, her new thriller.
The story’s protagonist is a Boston-area law student, Sara, who moonlights as a bartender to pay tuition and rent. At closing time she assists an over-served patron to the curb, and they wait for their respective ride-shares together. Unfortunately, they get their cars mixed up due to sharing a first name, and Sara ends up in an unfamiliar neighbourhood.
By the time she makes it back to her own apartment, she discovers the other girl has been murdered on her doorstep. The twist in this whodunit is not knowing which of them was the real target. It was dark and their builds and outfits were similar. If the attack was meant for her, then the killer is still after her.
So Sara has two investigations going on at the same time — she needs to look into the victim’s background and try to determine whether someone would have wanted this poor college girl dead, and she has to ask the same question about herself. This could mean antagonizing dangerous people from the murky pasts of both Saras.
The surviving Sara, short for Saraswati, is an interesting protagonist. The child of working-class Indian immigrants and a third-year law student and one-time scholarship kid, she nevertheless plays against the model minority stereotype. For her, a legal career is her ticket to a better life, but she is in constant danger of losing everything due to missing tuition payment deadlines, sleeping through class after working too late, or dark details of her past being exposed.
These challenges are only exacerbated after the murder, and this extra-ratcheted tension is reminiscent of old-school, hard-boiled fare featuring Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe. Just like these Depression-era gumshoes, Sara spends the novel on the brink of financial and personal disaster as she tries to unravel a mystery. She also shares some of her fictional predecessors’ hard edges, secretive pasts and moral ambiguity.
Narratively, it is harder to give a third-year law student the opportunity to actively participate in catching a killer. She has limited authority or even practical know-how compared to a seasoned private eye or police detective. On the other hand, there is an introspectiveness and social consciousness to her first-person narration that is something new.
Crime novels have always found fertile ground in the clashing of worlds. The wealthy heiress found dead, the grieving parents offering any amount of money for justice, the rough-hewn detective whose investigations inevitably take him into the poverty-stricken parts of town — because where else would the seedy underbelly be?
There is thus a lot of social commentary even in the earliest works of this genre, but it is rarely explicit.
In this novel Sara calls like it like she sees it. A white girl from a wealthy family is murdered on her doorstep and it is national news, but it would have been different if the poor, brown Sara had died instead — the one who lives in the bad end of town rather than stumbling into it by mistake.
Occasionally these ruminations are out of place with the urgency of the scene, but they usually land. Sara’s is a more thoughtful, layered brand of world-weary cynicism, appropriate to the current century.
With its late-summer release, the publishers may have set up Are You Sara? as a prospective beach read, and it works as that absolutely. This title is a solid thriller and strong first foray into what might be a fruitful genre for Lalli.
Joel Boyce is a Winnipeg writer and educator.