Michaela Lambert has a career I’ve never heard of and indeed doesn’t quite exist yet (but someone should start doing it) as a digital archaeologist for a new start-up run by her boyfriend. No make that ex-boyfriend. Well, like everything in Rachel Howzell Hall’s These Toxic Things, a wonderfully intricate mystery about the secrets that we keep and those that others keep from us, the relationship is complicated.
But Mickie, as she’s nicknamed, loves her job. She’s a thoroughly modern woman but she loves the curios of the past. For Memory Bank she catalogues items that her clients deem most valuable in highlighting important aspects of their life. Unfortunately, Nadia Denham, her new client and owner of Beautiful Things Curiosities Shoppe, a fascinating store in a somewhat seedy strip mall, is found dead. Denham has a plastic bag over her head and left a suicide note but the death looks suspicious none the less. And there is of course, the shark-like developer who wants to buy the land and bulldoze it for his own upscale development.
Since the dead woman already purchased the Mega-Memory Package, Mickie decides to go ahead and create the memory book and suddenly finds herself in a sinister, shadowy world. In ways, Mickie is sheltered, she lives in a tree-lined Los Angeles neighborhood behind the pretty home owned by her loving parents. Her uncle, a LAPD cop is equally protective and dedicated to her well-being. She graduated from USC, over-borrows her mother’s expensive and beautiful clothes and the two giggle over her stories of boyfriends while chowing down tacos. And yet even in this cocooned bubble, there are secrets as well.
Once entering the world of Denham’s beautiful things, she makes good friends at the nearby diner but she’s also suddenly receiving threatening notes and feels as those someone who knows where she lives.
Hall, a self-described control freak and thoroughly plots out her numerous novels (she has one already written coming out next summer and another next year), draws upon her own life and experiences, the stories she hears from friends and co-workers, and what she reads including newspapers, blogs, and social media.
. She and her college bound daughter share clothes, munch on popcorn while gossipping, and she has some secrets she will in the future share with her—though none, I’m sure, are as stunning as the one Mickie will discover about her family.
“Writers are like magpies—we grab shiny things and take them with us,” Hall says and of course that’s true, everything is material for writers. Hall is able to keep track of her complex novels because she is all about organization and has a daily to-do list.
“If I do something that’s not on the list, I add it later so I can cross it off,” she says. “We all have our rituals.”
These Toxic Things is one of an emerging mystery subgenre—that of feisty, independent, and intelligent Black woman who while bravely finding her way in the world also has her vulnerabilities.
“It’s a great awakening of Black female mystery writers, who burst out about three years ago,” says Hall.
It’s a very welcome one as well.