by Joe Clifford
Everything about Lily Moore evokes a bygone era, a time when looking fabulous mattered, when grace and pearls weren’t just accouterments worn on red carpets; they were a way of life. That isn’t to say Lily can’t hold her own with the big boys. Always a winning formula: soft of the eyes, tough as nails. No, what makes Lily, hands down, the most compelling amateur sleuth I’ve ever encountered is precisely this seeming dichotomy. She’s a woman I never picture with a hair out of place, and a woman I never doubt will get the job done.
Evil in All Its Disguises is Hilary Davidson’s third in the series, a point when most mystery writers are scraping the barrel to find new estranged aunts to murder and heirs to avenge (AKA the dreaded Jessica Fletcher Syndrome). Davidson cleverly avoids this trap by making Moore a travel writer. Instantly we have a heroine who has to be in exotic locales, which organically yields opportunities to encounter the mysterious and bizarre. As writer Tom Hazuka says, there are only two stories to tell: man goes on a journey, stranger comes to town. And, really, when you think about it, that’s pretty much the same story.
The first book in the trilogy, the masterful The Damage Done, sets up Lily’s search for her missing sister, and it’s not giving too much away to say that mission does not have a happy ending. Lily’s sister, Claudia, remains very much a character in the sequels, a ghost haunting Lily’s memory as she tries to re-right the past (which of course we never can do), which adds an unexpected layer of melancholy to her adventures.
And if the words “haunting” and “ghost” seem to imply an element of the supernatural, that is not entirely unintentional. There is nothing overtly magical happening in Evil, or even peripherally like in, say, a Wuthering Heights, which would lend the book to the horror or fantasy genre. But Davidson weaves just enough spookiness in this third installment, dabbles just enough with the macabre to elicit chills and send shivers. It’s a slight departure from the first two books and a welcome wrinkle.
Evil in All Its Disguises begins with Lily Moore arriving on a press junket to Acapulco, Mexico, not long after her ordeal in Machu Picchu (book two, The Next One to Fall). Acapulco is an inspired choice for a novel so concerned with nostalgia. There was a time when the Mexican resort town was the hotspot and place to be. Back when Elvis wasn’t fat (and dead), and the Rat Pack reigned supreme. Those days are long gone. Which is precisely Davidson’s reason for setting the book there. Acapulco is frozen in time, perfectly preserved, a city of pop culture ruin. Drug cartels scare away the tourists. You can’t go to the police (who are all on the take). Grandiose construction projects have been halted mid-sentence. Abandoned shantytowns aren’t as distressing as empty Newport mansions.
From the very first line, Davidson sets the sinister tone. Checking in at the luxurious (at least from the outside) Hotel Cerón, Lily feels something slithering around her shoe.
“The snake had coiled itself halfway around my ankle,” Lily tells us. “Even though its eyes were all but invisible in its glossy dark head, I was sure it was regarding me with pure defiance.”
This delightfully wicked bit of foreshadowing immediately begs the question: who is the snake? And in Evil we have so many options to choose from, including Martin Sklar, Lily’s former fiancé, who all but disappeared from Next One to Fall, but who returns here in all his duplicitous glory.
The character of Martin perfectly encapsulates what makes Hilary Davidson such a formidable writing force. The head of a global hotel conglomerate who resembles Tyrone Power and who squashes anyone who stands in his way, Martin could be a one-note player, a mustache-twirling villain, cackling plans of world domination, easily dismissed. Even without spelling out Martin’s specific crimes, it’s enough to say the man couldn’t speak the gospel in a month full of Sundays. Yet for all shortcomings and dishonesty, Martin still displays a strange sort of honor. Not unlike Tariq Lawrence, sister Claudia’s wonderfully complicated suitor from The Damage Done, who proved capable of extreme violence when the situation warranted, Martin circumvents laws and mores as he sees fits, but that liberty is always guided by a strict, if insular, moral vantage point. And part of this philosophy takes root in the simple, oddly existential, infusion of willful self-deception. Nothing is what it seems with Martin, an ideology he echoes later in the novel when betrayal comes via confidants in supposed inner circles.
“We’re both willfully blind, Lily,” Martin tells her. “We want to believe we know them. We think we know the truth about them, but we don’t. We’re just comfortable with our illusions.”
Pretty weighty stuff for what is, ultimately, a popcorn thriller. And before anyone misconstrues that line that as a slight, trust me, in my world there is no higher compliment.
The hardest novel to write is a top-flight commercial mystery. Anyone with a halfway decent command of syntax and ability to turn a phrase can endlessly navel gaze and meander plot-less through nefarious cloud banks and tennis lessons. But to write a mainstream, marketable, edge-of-your-seat thriller that isn’t by the numbers—a bona fide mystery, rollercoaster ride that is smart, sophisticated, and sexy (like Lily herself)? When most crime writers just pile bodies for shock value and morality is as bankrupt as Wall Street, circa 2008, writing a classic page-turner plays pretty punk rock in my book.
The story this time revolves around a fellow travel writer (Skye McDermott), who quickly goes missing somewhere in the catacombs of the abandoned hotel (“The rickety, splintery stairs were nothing like the opulence of the Hotel Cerón’s public façade”). Untouched cocktails and cryptic warnings leave us with a cast of possible suspects who could’ve done Skye wrong—or who may just be the good guys in disguise—including (but not limited to) Cerón manager Gavin Stroud (an insipid, insecure, weaselly man [is it wrong I kept picturing Paul Ryan?]); his honorable henchman, Apolinar; the eager-to-please Denny Chiu; or the coke-addled, womanizing, washed-up writer Pete Dukermann (love the name!).
Davidson pays homage to the locked-room mysteries of Poe, the whodunits of Agatha Christie, and she knows the ins and outs of complex character and story arc, but what really drives her work, the element that has been present in all three books but is most gloriously on display here is the mood she conjures through her profound appreciation for the very best of Hollywood.
The Golden Age. Film Noir. New Hollywood. Whatever your preference, whatever you want to call it, it’s the timeless appeal. That is the beauty of cinema. I’ve read recent interviews where Hilary talks about some of her influences in writing this book, and it’s no surprise that she mentions specific films and actors as much as she does other writers. (It’s also no surprise when she says Ava Gardner served as the basis for Lily Moore. Even before these interviews, I imagined Ava whenever I thought of Lily.)
Whether it’s Jean Harlow or Cary Grant or Humphrey Bogart—or even a modern star like Ed Harris, who I believe I read was the inspiration for Lily’s love interest, the roughhewn but tenderhearted Bruxton—the silver screen features prominently throughout Evil.
And speaking of that relationship, Lily and Bruxton… Listen, I may have several tattoos, bulging biceps and a criminal record, but when Lily says, “His hands were moving along…as if trying to memorize every inch of my body, every curve. He leaned forward and kissed me hard, clutching me against him…my body…so hot it seemed as if I were melting into him.” I’ll admit it. I swooned. Just a bit.
Evil in All Its Disguises has the added pressure of not only upping the ante and raising the bar of the two preceding books, both of which were sensational, but also wrapping up a trilogy in a way that brings closure to all these characters, whose lives and loves we’ve been following and invested in for thousands of pages. I am pleased to say that Hilary Davidson succeeds, handily, on all accounts.