''The Starr Sting Scale' by C. S. O'Cinneide (2020), kicks off a new slick, hard-edged but witty crime series about Candace Starr, a former professional hitwoman, trying to retire and not quite getting there.
We first meet Candace when a woman is trying to hire her to 'remove' someone difficult. Here's a sample of Candace's interior dialogue at that point.
'Difficult husbands are a speciality of mine. Rarely, in my line of work, do you run into a husband who isn't difficult in some way. The cheat, they lie and occasionally they smack their women around. It's like the metal in a wedding ring creates a strange magnetic force within a guy's body that sets off his asshole switch. Maybe wives should insist on a wooden band?'
Initially, I thought this would be a light, fast read, filled with pithy one-liners delivered by a slick anti-heroine who, through a combination of threat and incentive, finds herself working alongside the police as they investigate a murder for which Candace is a promising suspect.
I did get all that and it was fun but it wasn't really what the book was about. As the story unfolds, the real focus is on Candace's history and the events that made her who she is: a deeply scarred woman, who trusts no-one, is comfortable killing for money and thinks that friendship is a consensual delusion that wouldn't survive under pressure. The Starr Sting Scale of the title measures the amount of pain received from stings from large insects. Candace's story is one formed by periods of great pain.
Candace is a strong complex character that I can easily see a series being built around. She's physically imposing, fierce, lethal, unscrupulous, amoral, friendless, determined and very bright. She runs her mouth and can't prevent herself from antagonising everyone, especially people who try to exert power over her. Her past is traumatic. Her outlook is understandably bleak. She's a stranger to remorse and isn't looking for redemption but she'll take revenge whenever she can.
The plot is remarkably complex, not in a baroque way, but more in the sense that there is always a lot more going on than there appears to be and that almost everything is connected but the connections only become visible in the rearview mirror.
There is a lot of violence and none of it is sugar-coated. Candace is many things but likeable isn't one of them. Yet her energy and the plot's complexity kept me engaged throughout the novel.
'The Starr Sting Scale' works very well as a standalone novel but it also convinced me that I'll be buying the next book in the series when it comes out.