In her latest book, "Going to the Bad," author Nora McFarland puts Lilly Hawkins, an unconventional, crime-fighting TV photographer, in situations that are as amusing as they are dangerous -- including a shoot-out in the midst of Bakersfield's famous tule fog.
It's the third in a trilogy that includes "A Bad Day's Work," and "Hot, Shot and Bothered." (McFarland will be at Barnes & Noble on Wednesday to sign copies of her books.)
In the previous novels, Lilly has been able to maintain her objectivity while pursuing crime. This time around, Lilly's relation to the victim is decidedly personal. Her Uncle Bud, the only father she's ever known, has been shot and left to die in a house they share in Oildale.
Ultimately, the incident injects a touch of pathos into the story as Lilly uncovers unpleasant facts about her roots. Her soul-searching adds substance to the book and gives it greater weight in comparison to the first two in the series.
While Bud is fighting for his life in the ICU, an unusual bunch of characters enters the picture, such as a pharmacist who's supplying illegal drugs to a meth-making lab housed in an old barn once owned by a billionaire farmer. The barn is in the middle of the Kern River oilfields below the Panorama bluffs.
And this particular twist in the plot reveals secrets about her past that forces Lilly to take a hard look at herself and her on-again-off-again romance with Rod, a senior producer at KJAY, the fictional television station where both work.
McFarland, the author, once worked for a local TV station as a photographer, and she's familiar with the profession as well as our city, its surroundings and its customs. Homeowners going all out to fill their front yards with decorations at holiday time, for instance.
The story takes place on Christmas Eve and Lilly wants to interview the owner of a pawn shop whose front window was bashed in by a backhoe in an attempted robbery. The owner's wife, Mrs. Pawn Max, is willing to talk only if they meet in a shed at the rear of her house. But first, the photographer must promise to stop by the pharmacy and pick up the woman's "prescriptions for stress" which include a bottle of Pepto-Bismol.
Lilly drives to the neighborhood in a KJAY news van and, begins shooting footage of the holiday decorations in the front yard as a cover for her presence.
"I turned the corner into the backyard," Lilly says, "and almost ran into a life-size snow globe. Frosty the Snowman was inside waving. A fan continuously stirred Styrofoam peanuts as though someone had just shaken the globe. That and a North Pole bouncy castle had attracted fifteen to twenty kids and their parents, none of whom noticed me crossing the edge of the yard."
The pawn shop robbery introduces the history of two valuable pieces of antique jewelry that are connected to a murder involving Uncle Bud and the billionaire that happened many years before. It's this thread that reveals the abusive childhood that Lilly's father endured and the circumstances of his death, as well as Uncle Bud's criminal past as a con-man.
Despite the serious vein presented by Lilly's discovery of her heritage, the book sparkles with funny episodes, some of which could only happen at a TV station.
One episode involves a collection of pets available for adoption from the local animal shelter that are being shown during the noon news. Confusion reigns when one of the cages is accidentally opened. A cat starts chasing the dogs and one of the dogs -- its name is Thing -- ends up peeing on the leg of the female anchor whom Lilly calls "the ten-thousand-year-old demon."
McFarland ties it all up neatly in the final pages. We also learn, at the end, that Lilly has finally made up her mind about her future with Rod.
The author told me "Going to the Bad" will be the last in the Lilly Hawkins series. That doesn't mean she's stopped writing, however.
"I'm working on a mystery for tweens -- kids in the 10-to-12 age range," she said. "I wanted to try something different before deciding what adult book to write next. I should finish up the tween mystery this fall."
McFarland, who now lives in Macon, Ga., went on to say, "Then I'll probably start a book about a fictional pandemic flu outbreak. It'll be based on what happened in 1918, but set in modern times. Living so close to the CDC, (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) I've become fascinated by the work they do. Of course, I might write a mystery, too!"