Reviewed by Philip K. Jason
I have finally caught up with Tina Whittle’s Tai Randolph Mystery series, now in its fifth installment. Set in Atlanta and Savannah, this tale of crime, family, retribution, and Old South/New South contrasts and continuities has plenty of energy and strong characters. It’s main center of interest, however, is not so much the detection business but the relationship between Tai and Trey, the man she loves.
Trey Seaver is a former SWAT team policeman, now employed by a private security firm, who is coming back from serious injuries. He is pushing himself to restore his physical and cognitive losses. Both Tai and Trey tend to be overly protective of one another, but this is to be expected given their need for each other and their present vulnerabilities.
Tai, who has taken a few steps back from her years of amateur sleuthing, runs a gun shop that sponsors Civil War reenactments. Her cousins and uncle – the Boone family – are a villainous trio. Jasper Boone leads a white supremacist group that is too extreme for the KKK. His brother Jefferson is not to be trusted. Patriarch Beauregard is hospitalized and not far from death. People who are likely to testify against him in court are also likely to be found dead. Then there is the huge amount of stolen Klan money that has become something worth fighting over, dying for, and betraying anyone who gets in the way.
Tai somehow feels responsible for helping to bring her relatives to justice and preventing them from committing further crimes, but her intentions make her a possible victim. It is the family issue that brings Tai back from Atlanta to Savannah, and it is Trey’s love for her that brings him there as well.
The plot is a network of temporary alliances followed by betrayals, roaring action, and mountains of fear and suffering. Trey works by training and discipline. He needs an orderly path to function effectively and to keep his strong appetites in check. This seeking of balance is necessary both in his professional and private life. Tai respects him enormously, but tends to depend more on her gut and spontaneity.
Reckoning and Ruin is populated by a fairly large cast of well-drawn, distinctive female characters. These include Trey’s employer Marisa, a capable and confident businesswoman; Gabriella, “Trey’s bodywork therapist, alternative medical adviser, and former lover”; Cheyanne Boone, Jefferson’s wife and like him “high up in the Klan, the newly sanitized, female-friendly, uber-empowered version”; boat captain Louise Markowitz; and Hope, a fear-wrecked basket case of a woman who’s caught up in other people’s schemes and can almost never tell the truth.
The supporting male characters are also well-delineated, but seem more one-dimensional. This difference may be a result of the author having established Tai as the first-person narrator with an especially keen sensitivity to and interest in the women in her world.
Still, any reader will enjoy meeting a character like Train, Tai’s old Savannah friend who runs a tattoo shop called Soul Ink, “a cross between Episcopalian chapel and post-modern brothel.” He sees “body art as a sacred ministry” in which tattoos are “as prayerful as rosary beads.” Train is a consoling force and something of an inspiration for Tai. His domain is an arsenal of crucial information.
Tina Whittle makes her versions of various Atlanta and Savannah locales come alive with vivid, compelling detail. Similarly, the steps and missteps of the investigation that Trey conducts (he joins her in Savannah) ring with authenticity. Searching databases is one of Trey’s specialties; thus access to them is a professional lifeline. From bits and pieces of information found here and there in the cyber world, just what he and Tai need to understand about a character like Jasper’s prison physical therapist, Shane Cook, emerges from their intelligent, focused discussion of the facts Trey collects.
This is a fine murder mystery that does all the things it should do, opening special windows on character, behavior, legal issues, and investigative procedure in ways that distinguish it from others in the genre. For all that, the reader’s journey inside of the relationship between Tai and Trey, so fraught with the possibility of disaster, so filled with longing, is the solder that binds the pieces together and also the novel’s beating heart.