The narrator of Erica Wright’s debut crime thriller, The Red Chameleon, is Kathleen Stone, a retired NYPD cop. At just twenty-five years old, Stone is already a veritable has-been, a private investigator who spent a few years working undercover in an underworld of drug dealers and organized crime. Three years have passed since her cover was blown and a couple of big-league drug lords were sent away for a long time. Stone now parlays her gift for disguises into spying on marital philanderers and other seemingly less dangerous stealth pursuits.
Then she wanders into her client’s murdered husband in an Upper East Side bar.
Stone has an office where she poses as a real-estate agent, but she keeps hours more appropriate to pimps and bail bondsmen than to primped-and-pressed realtors. She’s a complex, slightly damaged personality whose closest friends are a big-draw drag queen named Dolly and their shared Russian wigmaker, Vondya Vasiliev. Those wigs are crucial to keeping Stone and her many personas—Katie, Kat, Kitty, Kathy, Kate, Katya—in business after her premature retirement from the force. “Not everyone had been supportive when I volunteered for an undercover rotation,” she says of her original career choice. “Fact is, there weren’t a lot of female volunteers, and I knew my decision would expedite my career. More importantly, it would also allow me to disappear for a while, and after my parents’ deaths, I felt like disappearing.”
After Stone discovers the body of her client’s husband, she exits the bar without being seen and dumps her disguise in the trash bin out back, wig and all. Naturally she becomes a suspect in the murder investigation being led by a friend, Detective Ellis Dekker. When he isn’t actually investigating Stone herself, Dekker taps her considerable investigative prowess to help him solve the crime.
The suspect/co-investigator role is often dicey, but this one is not so antagonistic that it precludes romantic tension, though Dekker has to compete with Stone’s other love interest, an undercover cop named Marco who makes Mark Wahlberg seem like a choir boy: “I had been his mentor and then his lover for a few months,” Stone says of Marco. “I taught him what I knew via hearsay about the complex alliances and vengeances of the group he wanted to join, and he repaid the favor by teaching me about body parts I didn’t know could tingle.”
Because it’s paramount that Marco’s true identity remain secret, Stone too must be in disguise when she wants to see her former lover. At such times she transforms into one of her many personas, a teenaged boy named Keith. Mussing her short hair and using Ace bandages to flatten her chest, she dresses in a skater T-shirt, ripped jeans, and dirty Vans to complete the effect. “Keith was actually one of my better disguises,” Wright writes. “I had never figured out how to convincingly fake acne, but throw an issue of Maxim and an iPod into my backpack, and I was all set as long as no one spoke to me. Funnily enough, people don’t go out of their way to talk to fifteen-year-old boys.”
The Red Chameleon is a debut thriller, but it’s not Erica Wright’s debut book: Wright, a Wartrace native, is also the author of two poetry collections—Instructions for Killing the Jackal (Black Lawrence Press, 2011) and Silt (Dancing Girl Press, 2009)—and she serves as the poetry editor at Guernica. This first outing in crime proves that she is also one of the rare mystery writers who can infuse the genre with both smart humor and artistic prose—all without sacrificing plot. The Red Chameleon is the kind of well-crafted and expertly conceived title that might make thriller fans wish more poets would venture into mystery writing.
No need to take our word for it: PW called The Red Chameleon “thoroughly engaging”, and Booklist compares it to Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series and Deborah Coonts’s Lucky O’Toole books. The book is also one of O, The Oprah Magazine’s Best Books of Summer 2014 and scored kind words last weekend from The New York Times’s Marilyn Stasio, who praised the original voice of Wright’s protagonist: “[T]his new P.I. has got a smart mouth on her, and plenty of wigs to help her find her own true character.”
We don’t know whether Wright’s next project will be a return to poetry or a new reason for mystery lovers to stay up late, but some of us are rooting for more Kat Stone.
[This review appeared originally on July 2, 2014. It has been updated to reflect new event information.]