Literature — both classic and popular — is rife with characters who, for the length of a book, yearn for something or someone they ultimately discover they don't want, after all. (Think Gatsby's Nick Carraway; Gone With the Wind's Scarlett O'Hara; even Anne Welles, the heroine of Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls.) That belated realization is central to Denise Hamilton's latest novel, Damage Control. The title refers both to a specific public relations skill-set and our own attempts to contain the damage a painful past can inflict on the present.
Hamilton has spent years honing her mystery chops. Her critically acclaimed Eve Diamond series is named for its heroine, a Los Angeles Times reporter turned sleuth whose investigations take her through the Los Angeles seldom seen by tourists: a family of Mexican-American music impresarios are the focus in Sugar Skull; a gang war among Russian emigres terrorizes the San Fernando Valley in Prisoner of Memory; and the plight of L.A.'s "parachute kids" (high-schoolers deposited by their wealthy Asian parents to live alone in the States in luxe neighborhoods with good public schools, with the Ivy League as their goal) is the basis for The Jasmine Trade. Hamilton's first stand-alone novel, 2008's The Last Embrace, was set in 1940s L.A. Damage Control is placed firmly in the city's frenetic present.
The intensity of teenage friendships and the tenacity of obligation are the foundation for Hamilton's new and second stand-alone novel. Her heroine, Maggie Silver, was a perpetual outsider growing up in '90s L.A. The daughter of a single mother who struggled to keep her in a tony private school, Maggie hitched her adolescence to the life of her friend Annabelle Paxton and Annabelle's powerful, tightknit family, which was everything Maggie's broken family was not:
For two years during high school, the Paxtons were my life, the sun around which I revolved. ... For them, there was no barrier between wanting something and getting it. They simply made it happen — with their money, connections and magnetic personalities. Their confidence was contagious, inspiring me to reach for a future I'd never imagined before. In many ways, they made me what I am.
But a traumatic night at a beach party changes everything for Maggie and Annabelle. Soon after, they go their separate ways, and over time Maggie grows into a confident professional with her past behind her — until she re-encounters the Paxton clan when Annabelle's father, now a U.S. senator, is accused of murdering his young female aide. A junior agent in L.A.'s best crisis management firm, Maggie is called in to guide the Paxtons through the media maelstrom that follows the murder. The mystery Hamilton conjures is convincing, and she has a fine and accurate eye for how privileged Angelenos live. But it's her ability to pull the curtain back on the often-opaque world of crisis management that will stay with you long after the novel is finished.
"I knew damage control, like magic, could be all about misdirection," Maggie observes. "And if modern wizards cloaked themselves in Eastern mysticism instead of pointy hats and flowing capes, did that make it any less of an act?"
By the end of Damage Control, Maggie has grown up enough to know the difference between an act and what is actual. And that knowledge arms her with a confidence that would make her fit right in with the Paxtons — had she not also gained enough emboldening sense of self to know that fitting in is no longer a priority.