Baugh creates a new protagonist in her thriller: Egyptian-American Nora Khalil, a Muslim who has bucked family tradition to
join a joint special task force generated by the Philadelphia Police Department, local
sheriff's offices and the FBI, the Safe Streets Violent Gang Task Force. After six months with the police department, Nora is now assigned to the FBI team. Thrust into the macho environment of law enforcement, Nora has managed to hold her own, earning the respect of teammates and the special interest of fellow officer Ben Calder.
The novel balances the formula of a police procedural with the insights of a Muslim police officer in a country suspicious of anyone of Middle Eastern descent. Careful to separate her career and the traditional family life she cherishes with her father and younger brother, Khalil provides a female perspective, helpful when questioning resistant female suspects. Currently the task force is stymied by a spate of gruesome murders, possibly a turf war between gangs in the volatile Kingsessing area, the victims vulnerable young women brutally stabbed to death. Because of rampant drug activity in Kingsessing, gang rivalry seems an obvious factor, a long-running feud fueling two groups, one supplying drugs from the Los Zetas in Mexico, a particularly brutal group. Save the murder of a gang leaderís sister, the other victims donít fit the profile of a feud. Nora worries that the task force is looking in the wrong place for the killers. Suspecting one victim might be Muslim, Khalil is alert for other inconsistencies.
Noraís personal life is complicated by her fatherís machinations in arranging a marriage with a prosperous Texas physician, Nora expected to concede to family custom. How she manages this awkward blend of personal life and career, her motherís death contributing to her decision to join law enforcement, adds cultural nuance that addresses Noraís particular issues and the difficulties she faces. Her family and religion are a critical part of her identity (and appeal), but Baughís unbridled enthusiasm in her protagonist sometimes dilutes Noraís gravitas as an officer. (Ironically, any weakness Khalil exhibits feels more related to her gender than her culture, a young woman among seasoned and world-weary men--her boss particularly protective. There is no mention of the conflicts female officers face in a male-dominated field, Nora not quite equal to her FBI or PPD teammates.)
The crimes unfolding in Quicksand, the ultimate horrors the task force discovers at the end of a bloody trail, are in juxtaposition to the parameters of the police procedural. Though Khalilís insights ultimately change the course of a successful investigation, she doesnít have enough weight as a lead character. Baugh is on the right track in expanding cultural differences, but this protagonist needs sharper teeth to be a contender in the genre, not just excessive graphic violence. This is the first novel featuring Nora Khalil. Hopefully, sheíll mature as an officer, experience and tough choices creating a more memorable character.