Like a Sister
By Kellye Garrett
Pub date: 08-March-2022
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In this “tense, twisting mystery” (Megan Miranda), no one bats an eye when a Black reality TV star is found dead—except her estranged half-sister, whose refusal to believe the official story leads her on a dangerous search for the truth.
“I found out my sister was back in New York from Instagram. I found out she’d died from the New York Daily News.”
When the body of disgraced reality TV star Desiree Pierce is found on a playground in the Bronx the morning after her 25th birthday party, the police and the media are quick to declare her death an overdose. It’s a tragedy, certainly, but not a crime.
But Desiree’s half-sister Lena Scott knows that can’t be the case. A graduate student at Columbia, Lena has spent the past decade forging her own path far from the spotlight, but some facts about Desiree just couldn’t have changed since their childhood. And Desiree would never travel above 125th Street. So why is no one listening to her?
Despite the bitter truth that the two haven’t spoken in two years, torn apart by Desiree’s partying and by their father, Mel, a wealthy and influential hip-hop mogul, Lena becomes determined to find justice for her sister, even if it means untangling her family’s darkest secrets—or ending up dead herself.
Rarely have I come across a book or comic with such perfect pacing that’s the main thing I want to discuss. LIKE A SISTER is the third novel from acclaimed mystery writer KELLYE GARRETT who has already received prestigious awards. She’s also the co-founder of Crime Writers of Color, a much-needed organization. If you are in need of diversifying your reading list or hiring panel speakers, I strongly suggest getting over there to peruse the catalog. She’s also on the board of Sisters in Crime.
Although I have Garrett’s Hollywood books in my TBR list, Like a Sister is actually the first chance I’ve taken to read her work. Garrett takes the real-fake world of reality television stars and lives of hashtags and influence to surround her protagonist, Lena Scott. Lena is a grad student living in the Bronx in a duplex with her “Aunt E,” her deceased grandmother’s life partner. Lena and her sister Desiree share a father, hip-hop mogul Mel Pierce known as Murder Mel. These characters come and go from each other’s lives with all the kinds of family drama a blue collar family would have. Lena chooses to live a modest life and keeps distance from the family fortune and name. Only once does Garrett refer to Lena and Desiree as half-sisters despite their differences in DNA. I once saw a Twitter thread where someone (sorry, I don’t remember who) said black people do not use this “half” qualifier; people are sister, brother, or sibling and that’s it.
By page three, readers learn of Desiree’s death — a fallen from grace celebrity who appears to have overdosed. It doesn’t surprise anyone given Desiree’s party girl lifestyle. Lena doesn’t buy it because even two years without speaking doesn’t erase how well she knows her sister. She’s the only one suspicious about the events surrounding Desiree’s death.
These ties between the sisters; their father; Desiree’s mother Veronika; her father’s assistant Tam; and then Desiree’s network of friends (Erin and Zarah) contain the story well. There are only a few outsiders like the police detectives and a too-charming-to-be-good reporter named Stuart. There is one more character with importance, Free, Mel’s former business partner turned hip-hop rival like Tupac and Biggie. Free plays an uncomfortable role as someone who was an avuncular family member to eventually having a short affair with Desiree. Not too much of a spoiler — you can see it coming.
If you’re a fellow writer and want to see a flawless third act or second half, study Like a Sister. Lena investigates everyone in her sister’s life and everyone has secrets. Perhaps the one hiding the most is Erin Ambrose. In this second half of the book around the 50-60% area, Lena has a lot more information to analyze and Erin is suspect number one.
During this time, Lena is focused on finding Desiree’s missing phone which she’s sure will unlock the puzzle. Readers will have their attention diverted through Lena’s point of view from suspects to clues. Is finding out more about Erin more important than finding the phone? As suspects tend to do, Erin easily throws someone else under the bus. Another diversion which gives Lena another path to follow.
Around 75%, the second biggest clue comes to the surface but retains some mystery. Why would Desiree be interested in a stranger’s GoFundMe? This thread started with such subtlety earlier in the book that it might seem like a mile marker in Desiree’s history of bad mistakes. Its importance begins to become clear in this later quarter of the book.
Erin was suspect one; she named Zarah as a possible suspect bringing it to two; Zarah makes some comments that introduce suspect three; by 80% we’re up to number four. Zarah seems to be the only one in the clear from then on. Eventually, Desiree’s ex-boyfriend, a DJ called Naut, naturally lands in the suspect pool too because exes always do. That makes five and Garrett isn’t done yet. Free, the one-time lover of Desiree makes six.
One of these suspects takes the spotlight so close to the end of the book that you think it has to be them. Nope! Garrett keeps you going around these names. The climax doesn’t disappoint. There’s more murder, a car chase, a break-in, and Lena fights for her life. It is, indeed, thrilling.
As I did with Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely, I felt Kellye Garrett’s Like a Sister is worthy of deeper analysis than slapping on some stars and saying it’s good. I think the connections to reality TV and hip-hop will surprise a cozy audience used to tea houses and antiques in charming towns. I know nothing of reality TV and hip-hop and I was sucked in just like the first season of Empire.
Rating: 5 stars