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'Fatal' puts a timely spin on a deadly scam

Yesterday’s Fatal
By Jan Brogan
St. Martin’s, 324 pp., $24.95

It must be tough to be a cop these days, with the glut of mystery novels populated by civilians who blithely solve murders as they go about their day jobs as doctors and professors and even priests. Worse still, the police in these mysteries often bumble their way around the corpses, struggling for leads or overlooking key evidence.

Jan Brogan has chosen a popular new breed of crime solver in her Hallie Ahern novels: the female newspaper reporter. In "Yesterday's Fatal," Hallie, newly appointed to the investigative team of a Providence paper, is driving back from covering a political banquet when she happens upon a fatal car crash. Although police see nothing more than a tragic accident, Hallie is driven, partly by sympathy for the victim, a young mother of three, to start nosing around.

The investigation drags her deep into the grim underworld of crash-for-cash schemes, where car "accidents" are choreographed so that lucrative, false insurance claims can be filed. Brogan, an occasional correspondent for the Globe, spent two decades as a reporter, including a stint at The Providence Journal, and she did her homework researching the fraud rings. The narrative mentions the real-life tragedy of a Lawrence grandmother who died in a set-up crash.

Brogan also paints a compassionate portrait of the people so desperate for money -- including, most disturbingly, a pregnant woman -- that they're willing to work as crash-test dummies for a little cash. The leader of the fraud ring, with a purple scar that has spawned legends about its origin, is alternately terrifying and amusing: When Hallie's car ends up in his garage, he installs a free sunroof.

Hallie is more vulnerable and less feisty than other literary reporter/detectives, like Edna Buchanan's Britt Montero or Denise Hamilton's Eve Diamond . Her frailties make her an intriguing choice for a narrator. As she outwardly searches for answers in the death of the young woman, she also takes a few quick peeks at the unrest within her own soul.

She announces to readers in the novel's early pages that she possesses an addictive personality and is recovering from a sleeping-pill addiction fueled by her brother's death six years earlier. But even as a well-meaning friend keeps dragging her to Gamblers Anonymous meetings (her descent into that addiction was laid out in Brogan's previous book in the series, "A Confidential Source" ), Hallie prefers denial.

And yet, given Hallie's membership qualifications for a multitude of 12-step groups, her character seems a bit torpid. Sure, she rebounds quickly from one unsatisfying relationship into the four-poster bed of a lawyer she barely knows. And she lurches perilously through her investigation of the auto fraud ring, posing as a passenger in a crash-bound car to get more details for her story. But she seems less driven by desperation, or deep emptiness within, than by a more pedestrian concern: her desire to keep her job as the newspaper shrinks under new ownership.

Hallie shines brightest as a wry, if damaged, observer. On her way to a Gamblers Anonymous meeting, as she crosses paths with a gaggle of obese women heading to a binge-eaters recovery group, she opines, "It was comforting how many different kinds of personal problems could fill a church parking lot."

As the book ends, Hallie learns that her investigation may have prompted a murder, and we wonder how this guilt will play upon her troubled psyche. Maybe this will be the internal narrative, abundant with possibility, for the next Hallie Ahern mystery.

Kathleen Burge can be reached at