One of the dangers of multi-installment series featuring the same protagonist is they can morph into a sort of same-story-different-location exercise. That is, the fundamentals of each book start to replicate -- the protagonist pulls out the same bag of tricks to solve the mystery, the same types of characters appear -- and all that changes is window dressing like location or time of year.
But in the racing vernacular there’s no “holding station” for Kaehler in book three. She’s not just doing the literary version of saving fuel and tires trying to make it to the end of a several-dozen-book run of her Kate Reilly racing-themed mystery series. Instead she’s driving for the win, even in the early stages of what fans hope is a long run.
So while other mysteries range far and wide around sprawling geographies like New York or Los Angeles or even the entire US or Europe, and have an infinite number of characters and events available to drive the plot forward, Kaehler dramatically limits herself by having Kate Reilly, rising young sports car driver, solve the mystery using only the characters who would plausibly be associated with race teams and within the confines of Daytona International Speedway.
It’s a bit like the literary version of needlepoint, and for the most part Kaehler pulls it off.
As with the her first two books -– Dead Man’s Switch and Braking Points (reviews here) -– Kaehler continues to shine in some very important areas.
First, she walks the line beautifully between enough racing detail to keep fans of the sport engaged and not too much to descend into the kind of race techno- or tradition-babble that would scare off readers who are more fans of mystery than racing.
Second, her ability to put readers behind the wheel with and in the brain of Kate Reilly during racing scenes continues to impress. Kaehler uses a tight, staccato style to describe Kate’s driving while skillfully weaving in access to Kate’s thoughts at key moments. Kate’s stints behind the wheel offer both character and reader a pleasant break from heavy-duty sleuthing. You'll find yourself looking forward to Kate's next stint.
Third, Kaehler’s writing style overall continues to be very accessible, with an economy of language that keeps the story moving and conveys Kate’s personality without dumbing anything down.
While Kaehler handles the constraints of having the entire book play out over 24 hours at one relatively tiny location very well, there are some rough spots. Many plot advances are achieved via discussions between Kate and her manager/friend Holly, with Kaehler moving them from place to place around the track until the two have seemingly talked in every corner of Daytona International Speedway.
Also, Avoidable Contact brings in more of Kate’s complex back story. While it helps drive the plot forward and opens up gaping vistas that future books can explore, it also ushers in a somewhat overwhelming cast of characters including an estranged father, long-lost cousins, current boyfriend, ex-boyfriend, ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend, a rival for current boyfriend’s attention and more, all of whom bring their own issues and emotions. Layered onto all the characters associated with teams and the series it's easy to lose track of who is who.
The good news about the crowd scene of relatives and significant others is that it helps Kaehler continue her excellent work in making Kate a less-than-perfect character. Although she remains highly likeable and easy to root for, readers may occasionally find themselves shaking their heads at Kate, who can be angry, stubborn, over thinking, under thinking, rash, reticent and more, often at inopportune times.
Throughout her series, Kaehler makes a wise decision to not have Reilly be a superstar on or off the track. While Kate is a talented driver and has bright moments, she’s far from head-and-shoulders above the pack. Kaehler also smartly avoids having Reilly have Danica Patrick-level celebrity and legions of fans wherever she goes, which would only distract from the stories and invite the equally distracting "fictional Danica" tag. And, although Kaehler has never driven race cars competitively herself, her character has gotten the stamp of authenticity by those who have, including IndyCar’s Pippa Mann.
Another big bonus in Avoidable Contact that racing fans will appreciate and mystery aficionados will find interesting is Kaehler’s insightful discussion of the relationship between money and racing. Throughout the book Kaehler adds pinches of insights and thought-provoking discussion of the delicate topic which often generates love-hate bipolarity among fans.
Fundamentally, Avoidable Contact is a success on the levels that count most. Kaehler’s economical style moves the plot along without sacrificing all nuance and depth; she’s simply a good writer. Kaehler continues to find an excellent balance between racing and mystery. Her main character, Kate Reilly, remains highly likeable but far from perfect (like most of us) and evolves in complexity which should open up new avenues to keep the series alive for some time to come. And her mysteries are sufficiently complex and character-driven that fans of the genre will be well satisfied with the book. You’ll do plenty of “I bet he did it” as you progress through the story.
Having such a niche setting (racing) and protagonist (race car driver) will continue to be a challenge, and readers may long for Kate to get into a car and chase the bad guys through the streets of San Francisco at the end of Avoidable Contact. Perhaps next time. Kaehler recently scouted the Indianapolis 500 for use in a future tome. Given the breadth of racing disciplines, Kate Reilly has many places she could go, and given Kaehler's talent she has more than enough horsepower to get there.
For an excerpt and to order the book, visit Tammy’s site.
For my review of Tammy’s first two books, go here.