Diamond in the Rough

Denise Hamilton had no idea that her calling was to be a novelist. After all, with 10 years' experience as a Los Angeles Times reporter and several more as a freelance writer, she was already successful in the world of newspapers. Then she joined a writing group and found unexpected liberation in conjuring up murder mysteries.

Writing fiction, Hamilton says, is "everything you can't put into journalism. It's your own ideas, it's your own opinions, it's making up dialogue, it's manipulating your characters in ways that never happen in real life."

Hamilton's first crime novel, The Jasmine Trade, received widespread acclaim and several award nominations. Inspired by the classic noir writing of Raymond Chandler, Hamilton explains, "I wanted to take that Chandler-esque feel and update it and bring it into 21st-century, multicultural L.A. from the perspective of a female journalist." Now the author is set to impress even more readers with Sugar Skull, another adventure starring savvy, hard-boiled heroine Eve Diamond.

Much like Hamilton herself, Eve is an energetic reporter, working the weekend metro shift in addition to her weekdays at a suburban bureau of the L.A. Times. However, as Hamilton's "wilder alter ego," Eve gets to do things that her creator could never do as a journalist. "She crosses a lot of moral frontiers," says Hamilton.

But Eve's adventurous nature sure makes her life interesting, to say the least. When a frantic man runs past security and into the newsroom to find help for his missing daughter, Eve puts aside her worst fears that the guy's an ax murderer and goes with him to look for the girl.

From the filthy, abandoned building where the runaway teen turns up dead, allegedly at the hands of her squatter boyfriend, Eve's reporting leads her to the luxurious home of the girl's privileged classmate, son of a politician and his celebrity socialite wife. The plot thickens when someone else soon dies, but Eve gets distracted with another assignment.

Working on a profile of an influential Latino concert promoter, Eve delves into the local Mexican-American community and learns about another recent death. Then her personal and professional lives start to blur together, culminating in an eventful Día de los Muertos celebration where Eve realizes that she's no longer just reporting the story -- she's part of it.

Since Eve, as a reporter, has special access to all kinds of people and places, Hamilton's suspenseful tale realistically weaves together the complicated relationships between seemingly disparate characters, and between superficially separate communities, as a tribute to the sheer diversity of her city.

"People are connected in these weird ways, especially in L.A.," Hamilton says. "These people shouldn't even know each other. They're different races and different classes and they live in different parts of town, and yet there are these secrets that connect them."