BYLINE: Gina Webb
For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Human trafficking --- modern-day slavery --- is the fastest-growing criminal industry in the world, generating an estimated $9.5 billion every year. According to the U.S. Department of State, 600,000 to 800,000 people are bought and sold across international borders each year; half are children, most are female.
Atlanta's airports and transit systems create an ideal environment for traffickers to move victims and stay one step ahead of the police. Low-income neighborhoods are easy targets --- with few resources for extensive search efforts --- and so are high-risk children who won't be missed, such as runaways and foster children.
Or, as cop-turned-missing-children's advocate Moriah Dru calls them: "Troubled kids. My kind of kids." The kind of kids that have been disappearing from Atlanta's historic Cabbagetown neighborhood in Gerrie Ferris Finger's debut mystery, "The End Game."
Dru runs Child Trace, the organization she formed after leaving the police force, and she's called into action when two more children go missing. This time the circumstances are too suspicious to ignore: After a house fire that kills Ed and Wanda Barnes, their young foster children, sisters Jessie, 9, and Dottie, 7, are nowhere to be found.
Dru joins forces with ex-partner Rick Lake, Atlanta PD Homicide Unit, to look into what they at first believe is a local crime. Before long, Dru gets a tip that the girls may be victims of a child sex ring with eager clients in South America. Dru and Lake have less than 24 hours to find the sisters.
"The End Game" won the 2009 Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel award, which celebrates the "cozy" genre. Think Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers --- old lace, small villages, and the ever-present teapot, the trademark of the cozy. Traditionally, cozies avoid gratuitous violence and explicit sex. So, how to write about something so much dirtier than a nice clean-cut murder under those conditions?
Finger carries it off by keeping the kids and their abductors offstage and the action centered on the intense but relatively bloodless hunt. The action takes place during a single day during which Dru and Lake rarely venture far from the scene of the crime --- their house-to-house interviews of witnesses and suspects constitute a walking tour of Cabbagetown.
Punchy dialogue and sly humor keep things moving, and an "eenie meenie miney moe" of neighborhood witnesses --- a prying spinster, a wrongly-convicted child molester, a store-owner who likes to dress up as Santa Claus, even the oily head of child services --- come across as all the shadier for being unlikely suspects.
Dru is a strong narrator whom we get to know through the investigation --- her questions and reactions prove that her heart goes out to hobos, the homeless, and the throwaway kids --- but Finger never allows us far enough into her head to know what drives her. Instead, our closest glimpse of Dru's emotions is of her fierce jealousy toward a rival for Lake's affections in a limp subplot that detracts from the desperate hunt for the girls.
Similarly, what we know about Rick Lake is limited to what Dru tells us: "Lake's daddy had been a cop, like Lake, and a suicide, like my daddy"--- but after dropping bombs like this, she segues back into the action. It's a missed opportunity to use the couple's backgrounds and relationship, a la Karin Slaughter or Tana French, to add depth to the story. Maybe a sequel will offer more insight into what makes these two tick.
Finger, who grew up in Missouri and now lives on the Georgia coast, spent 20 years at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she edited the columns of late humorist Lewis Grizzard and covered local and national news.
"The End Game"
Gerrie Ferris Finger
Minotaur; $24.99; 304 pages