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'Toxic' Trinkets Fit Together To Form A Frightening Puzzle In This New Thriller

These Toxic Things, by Rachel Howzell Hall

Michaela Lambert's personal life may be hell, but her new project looks like heaven. As a digital archaeologist with the start-up Memory Bank, she pieces together a person's life story from the artifacts they hold dear. The work is about digging and discovery and transformation; the end product is like a supercharged, higher tech mashup of home movies and Facebook memories, enhanced by holograms and professionally honed. With an intense native curiosity and a degree in narrative studies from prestigious USC, Michaela is a talented practitioner of this new art form and the kind of person who draws others in, an invaluable skill in a deeply personal process. Now, she's been tasked with helping a woman obsessed with memorabilia — collecting it, selling it, hoarding it — make a record of her life before her memories slip away.

It's meaningful work, and just the distraction Michaela, who goes by Mickie, needs to shake off the emotional wreckage of her semi-broken heart. But before she can nurse her wounds or dance out the sadness, Mickie gets caught up in a dangerous mess: Nadia Denham, the client she just met and, and whose Mega-Memory Package Mickie is charged with creating, is found dead with a plastic bag over her head. There's a suicide note, but the circumstances look "hella janky" according to Mickie's Uncle Bryan, her inside source at the LAPD.

In any case, the job is paid for and her curiosity springs into overdrive. Michaela has a life to recreate — and if that keeps her near the victim's Beautiful Things Curiosities Shoppe, and in close proximity as the investigation into her death unfolds, that's okay with her. Plus, the strip mall Denham's shoppe sits in is embroiled in a bitter territorial fight. An aggressive real estate developer — possibly prime suspect number one — wants the site, and his business philosophy is "by any means necessary."

Mickie's bright resilience makes a compelling contrast to the menacing darkness inherent in a thriller that begins with a sly serial killer stalking Los Angeles and then proceeds to dispatch a seemingly sweet old woman in a ghastly way. Howzell Hall is at the height of her craft as the story unfolds on multiple tracks: the serial killer most of the LAPD is focused on in the background, the possible not-a-suicide at the funky strip mall embroiled in a fight over a new development, and on top of that something vaguely off closer to home. (Mickie's receiving strange texts and mysterious written notes shoved under her door.) Howzell Hall skillfully weaves together disparate threads that at first don't appear to be connected. But life is complex, and so are her characters. Everyone involved has secrets. And it serves the story well.

That includes both Mickie — whose life isn't as shiny as it appears — and the mysterious Nadia, who left behind a treasure trove of clues in the form of 12 precious artifacts for Mickie to use in building her life story. Each object helps Mickie understand who Nadia really was, and even what might have happened to her. Mickie is relentless in her commitment to the task — despite the hostility of the pseudo-surrogate daughter/employee Nadia left behind who's weirdly hostile to her completing the project, and the unknown quantity that is Denham's prodigal son.

Loved, nurtured and protected — as well as intelligent, impetuous, and nosy as hell, Mickie Lambert is the kind of brave and carefree Black girl we don't often see on the page or screen.

Whatever the obstacle, Mickie forges ahead. Loved, nurtured and protected — as well as intelligent, impetuous, and nosy as hell, Mickie Lambert is the kind of brave and carefree Black girl we don't often see on the page or screen. She's the Black girl we want to see living her best life in a romcom by Issa Rae. And in a way, Rachael Howzell Hall does give her some of the trappings of a romantic comedy: The close girlfriends in constant contact, the texts, the outfits, the brunches and the bad boyfriend trouble and the fretting about when he's going to call.

But Mickie's choices more closely resemble those of horror movie queens rather than a romcom heroine. Being inside her head almost all the time is a sometimes-chaotic, almost stream-of-consciousness adventure. She's comfortable with risk because she's always known security. Growing up in a leafy part of Los Angeles, Mickie enjoyed the love and guidance of attentive and supportive parents. As a 24-year-old adult, she has her own apartment behind their comfortable upper-middle-class home to fall back on when her relationship falls apart. Plus, with LAPD-related family members who have her back, she benefits from the privilege of counting the police as friend rather than foe. But now, for the first time, there's danger swirling around her that doesn't retreat when she reaches that haven of her parents' home.

There's a cognitive dissonance to the experience of reading These Toxic Things. I know it's a thriller, so bad things will happen, but I also wanted/felt that I needed Mickie to stay that boldly carefree girl. She doesn't. And I wanted her many gifts to shield her from harm. They can't. But she does get to be the cool girl, and the "final girl" and her own unique creation. It's an intriguing, riveting pleasure to watch the action unfold and see how the pieces fit together.

A slow runner and fast reader, Carole V. Bell is a cultural critic and communication scholar focusing on media, politics and identity. You can find her on Twitter @BellCV.

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