Jodé Millman’s The Empty Kayak is the third in a series starring police detective Ebony Jones. With a title that makes the coming action seem obvious, the book relies heavily on twisting and character to keep reader interest.
The police are initially called in to look at the disappearance of a young man kayaking in the Hudson River. However, as Ebony Jones arrives she recognizes the daughter of a friend, and as a result realizes that the missing individual is her friend’s former husband Kyle Emory.
While an experienced hand, Ebony is not nearly as much the focus for the book as you might expect. Instead one Jessie Martin gets nearly as much focus and a significantly larger character focus. Martin is an attorney in her own right, estranged from Ebony due to working primarily as a defense lawyer. She is the ex-wife of the victim, concerned about the possibility of the death affecting their daughter Lilly. She is also, rather naturally, curious about the strange circumstances of the death. The interplay of these similar but non-identical points of view is one of the stronger elements of the book.
The book has its share of flaws. The most obvious of these is an almost universally positive depiction of the police. While a book focused on a member of the force means official will often be expected to do this, it is largely handled uncritically here. At one point the idea of staging an incident to make the police look bad via their dashcam is brought up. The treatment is almost absurd. The instance singlehandedly helps to drag down a clever and multifacited mystery, reminding the reader of police biases in a manner that does not feel justifiable. Given the otherwise believable role that police image concerns play in the rest of the book it is a most unfortunate decision.
Wealth, celebrity and the role of social media in society play a large part in this book. Identities are obscured by pseudonymns and performative versions of life even as major events should leave them actually concerned. While perhaps not rising to the level of intentional social commentary, it is well included.
Overall, The Empty Kayak is another nice entry in a young but respected series. Featuring enjoyable characters, a nice twisting mystery, and believably revealed new clues, the book will please fans. New readers would do better to begin the series with The Midnight Call or Hooker Avenue, but they will not find themselves lost going through these pages. Further while changes occur, everything is clearly left in place for the adventures of the lead to continue.
(Level Best Books, 2023)