Lilly Hawkins notes that if the TV station where she works as a shooter takes the number one spot in the ratings, the boss will get the bonus and the rest of the staff will “share a pizza.” A painful reality, one we can all relate to. The humor of Lilly’s insight hooks you from the first scene of Nora McFarland’s debut mystery, A Bad Day’s Work.
When a middle-of-the-night call comes about a big breaking story, Lilly hauls herself from bed and grabs her camera, determined to break the spell of bad luck that has turned her into the topic of watercooler gossip. This begins Lilly’s bad day, which only gets worse at the murder scene and over the next few days. She faces down unexplained equipment failures and the treachery of colleagues. She is threatened, beaten up, kidnapped, and fired. Worse yet, she has no idea whom to trust.
Enter Uncle Bud, her only relative, one she hasn’t been in touch with for years. A man with a collection of junk in his front yard that would make the most blatant white trash Southerners blush for shame. A man with questionable connections and unexplained, possibly illegally acquired skills. The perfect guy to turn to when you’re in a jam.
Another man rushes to Lilly’s rescue, despite her attempts to slough him off. The station’s anchorman, Rod Strong, has earned his colleagues’ scorn for careful attention to his hairstyle and a high-pitched laugh. But Rod, like many of McFarland’s characters, is more complex and nuanced than he first appears. When the station boss warns Lilly that Rod is geeky and vulnerable, she says Rod “sees the best in people, and when something does go wrong, he believes the next time will be different.” Luckily for Lilly, Rod keeps coming back though she rebuffs him.
McFarland’s experience as a shooter at a Bakersfield TV station lends authenticity to her story. She uses lingo like “gets” and cameras set to “black” to immerse readers in the world of television news without overdoing it to the point of distraction.
The author has a gift for tying disparate plot threads and characters together in unexpected ways. Both Lilly and Rod use this line in the novel: “People aren’t just one thing. You don’t always know what they are going to do.” Pretty insightful stuff coming from Lilly. She is a talented shooter, but lacks skill with people. She doesn’t read them well or know how to forge relationships. But the repeated line could apply to the novel itself. Readers don’t know what McFarland’s characters are going to do next, and that gives us a reason to keep turning the pages.
The author, a resident of Macon, Georgia, has an MFA from USC’s school of cinema and television. She plans a trilogy of Lilly Hawkins novels. The nonstop action, unexpected complications, and Lilly’s wry internal dialogue make for an enjoyable read. In the end, Lilly’s voice is memorable because she is smart—but not too. Because she is skilled, but a bit of a bumbler. Because she doesn’t really know how to love, but we have hope that she can learn.