'Damage Control' By Denise Hamilton. Scribner, 384 pages, $26
Denise Hamilton's series about L.A. Times reporter Eve Diamond gracefully explores Southern California's melting-pot landscape, delving into the culture clash of a polyglot society. Hamilton's ongoing themes receive an intense workout in "Damage Control," her first stand-alone novel.
Instead of examining the melding of different ethnic groups, Hamilton focuses on one woman whose lifelong battle with classism and identity has turned into a career. If you can spin doctor your own life, then it shouldn't be a stretch to work that magic for others. "Damage Control" also works as a tale about unbridled ambition, friendship and betrayal.
Maggie Silver works for a high-powered public relations firm in Los Angeles that specializes in damage control for its uber-wealthy clientele. And there is no shortage of work: "There were plenty of scandals to untangle in a place where giant egos, immense wealth, and dreadful behavior collided with metronomic regularity." Cleaning up "messes" puts Maggie on call just about 24-7, and she needs that fat paycheck to support her mother, a recent cancer survivor.
Her boss puts her on the team working with Senator Henry Paxton, whose young, female aide has been found murdered. Henry has a presidential run in his future and any scandal could derail his plans. But Henry isn't a client to Maggie; his daughter, Anabelle, was Maggie's best friend in high school. Back then, Maggie was thrilled to be with the Paxtons and often lied about her lower-middle class background; she was devastated when the friendship ended.
The charismatic Paxtons bring back Maggie's feelings of inadequacy, but the more time she spends in the family's orbit, the more problems she sees.
Maggie witnesses the dark side of her job when her boss is accused of pushing unethical, or "black" public relations, and some of her colleagues "treated damage control as an aesthetic sport rather than real life where people's lives and reputations were at stake."
Realistic characters live in Hamilton's L.A., where the division between the haves and have-nots can be immense.
"Damage Control" spins on its intense character studies. Hamilton wisely doles out bits and pieces about Maggie's past and why her and Anabelle's friendship ended, giving more of an impact to the twists and the believable finale. Hamilton, who also writes a perfume column for the Los Angeles Times, adds an intriguing aspect to Maggie's recollections of her past. Perfumes, the smell of a plane passing overhead, the sand and sea are all scents that trigger her faulty memory.
Hamilton's last novel was "The Last Embrace," published in 2008. "Damage Control" is a welcomed return from Hamilton.
Oline H. Cogdill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.