Most Wanted by Michelle Martinez

Back to the crime fiction beat for this segment of the Friday review. Most Wanted is a debut novel from former federal prosecutor Michelle Martinez. Her main character, Melanie Vargas, is also a federal prosecutor. Melanie is beautiful, mother of a small child, considering a divorce from her husband, Steve. Melanie is drawn to an FBI agent while embroiled in the investigation of a homicide; a former colleague is brutally murdered in his Manhattan brownstone. The victim has a society wife, connections with the cops and a great deal of unexplained wealth.

The story unfolds immediately with only a brief flashback to Melanie’s childhood in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. The strength of the novel is the author’s straight ahead approach. There’s little mystery in the traditional sense because the reader spends time in the killer’s point of view; the novel is written in the third person, enabling the author to get inside the heads of several key players. These passages are well written, but reduce the story’s tension. Ms. Martinez imbeds some interesting details late in the book about drug traps while keeping Melanie hopping. The resolution of the story is interesting. The bad guys get their due. Steve delivers a speech about what he wants from their marriage that redefines shallow male characters, updating the sterotype to the level of a disposable diaper. That Melanie is somewhat moved by this speech must be ascribed to job stress; her boss, Bernadette, is a stress machine who periodically threatens Melanie with career extinction. The novel hovers during time outs for babysitting crises, a brief interlude of marriage counseling, and the shenanigans of corporate lawyers gone mad. All of Melanie’s key witnesses are murdered by a one man wrecking crew named Slice. How is Slice locating one witness after another?

Most Wanted ends with a romance cliffhanger that signals the beginning of a series. Melanie Vargas is a sympathetic main character, and Michelle Martinez is an able writer. For a series to be compelling Melanie needs to assert more authority on the page; she is passive at times. As for husband Steve, he should run away to a destination resort until three or four more books have passed, then return as a Benedictine monk. Just a thought.