Book Review by Vincent Bosquez
By Michelle Martinez
William Morrow (2007)
For more than 150 years, Central Park has been delighting New Yorkers and visitors from around the world with its 250 acres of lush green lawns, 136 acres of woodlands and seven bodies of water that serve as an oasis from the daily hustle and bustle of life in the Big Apple.
On any given day, people can be found in the park playing with children, jogging, reading or walking their pets. But there’s a dark, criminal side to Central Park that can’t be avoided when more than 25 million visitors enter its grounds each year — especially at night. And perhaps there’s no one more knowledgeable to tell those stories in a fictionalized format than New York City federal prosecutor-turned-author Michele Martinez.
Martinez burst onto the literary scene two years ago with the publication of her widely praised debut novel “Most Wanted,” which introduces us to federal prosecutor Melanie Vargas. Vargas is a smart, beautiful woman of Puerto Rican descent who must juggle a newborn baby, a rocky marriage, a handsome G-man assigned to assist her and a complicated case where the killer soon sets his sights on her.
Vargas re-emerges in Martinez’s 2006 sophomore novel “The Finishing School,” one year older, bolder and wiser, still solving crimes with beauty, brains and brawn. The action is intense and fast-paced, as Vargas must go undercover in New York City and travel to Puerto Rico to solve a crime committed by a scheming murderer who has no intentions of getting caught.
Now comes Cover-Up, Martinez’s third novel featuring Vargas. She’s a now-divorced single parent yearning for love but pressured to make time to handle a horrific murder in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Suzanne Shepard, a glamorous scandalmonger and television personality, has been viciously raped and stabbed near the 79th Street entrance to Central Park, and all the physical evidence at the scene points to a random sex crime, but the viciousness of the attack suggests otherwise:
“Suzanne Shepard’s mouth, visible through strips of blood-smeared plastic packing tape, was twisted into a grimace of the starkest horror. Her blue eyes were open and vacant, but wide with shock, and the black blood that had sprayed up to dot her face looked like so many flies swarming. She’d died in agony; you could see it in her expression, and yet the cool, beautiful TV star was still recognizable in the gruesome corpse.”
Across town, Vargas and her favorite FBI agent and potential suitor, Dan O’Reilly, are getting hot and heavy on her living-room sofa after dinner when O’Reilly’s pager summons them to the park. Once there, Vargas discovers the assistant district attorney has a weak stomach that needs attention after viewing the gruesome aftermath of the murder. Therefore, the case goes to Vargas by default since the investigation is deemed to be a joint state-federal case by law enforcement authorities at the scene.
Vargas races to solve the crime and capture the criminal that the tabloid media has dubbed the “Central Park Butcher” in order to put the public at ease. Quickly she finds herself in the midst of a high-society scandal intermixed with characters such as a personal trainer who’s selling recreational drugs to his clients, a devious Park Avenue plastic surgeon who may be doing more than making the rich look younger and sexier, and an online stalker who may be the killer following all her moves.
Martinez hypnotically holds the reader’s attention by moving the action at breakneck speed, never stopping for speed bumps or coffee breaks. Her years of experience as a federal prosecutor, where she handled cases involving murders, kidnappings, home invasions and other acts of violence, give her writing credibility and her book a strong dose of stark reality that carries the novel to the upper echelon of suspense thrillers.
Cover-Up firmly establishes Martinez as an author not to be ignored in the company of suspense novelists. Don’t try to compare her to other writers of the genre — Martinez’s work stands on its own merit and promises to be the yardstick others will be measured against for years to come.