As far as fictional heroines go, Hailey Cain is one tough chick.
She’s been beaten up, shot, tortured and left for dead. But she never backs down.
Hailey proves her mettle once more in “Thieves Get Rich, Saints Get Shot,” the latest crime thriller from Morro Bay author Jodi Compton. (The book, which hit store shelves in July, takes its title from lyrics in the Stephen Sondheim musical “Merrily We Roll Along.”)
“I just don’t have a sedate suburban mystery in me,” Compton explained.
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Compton’s previous books, “The 37th Hour” and “Sympathy Between Humans,” follow Minneapolis Sheriff’s Det. Sarah Pribek, a capable yet vulnerable investigator specializing in missing-person cases.
“Hailey’s War,” which came out in 2010, introduced readers to 24-year-old Hailey Cain, a West Point dropout turned San Francisco bike messenger.
After accidentally killing the only son of a hip-hop mogul, Hailey agrees to smuggle a young pregnant woman into Mexico at the request of her best friend, Latina gang leader Serena “Warchild” Delgadillo. She eventually ends up risking her life to rescue 19-year-old Nidia and her unborn baby from the clutches of a vicious Greek-American mobster — losing a finger in the process.
In “Thieves,” Hailey has resurfaced in Los Angeles as Serena’s kickboxing, truck-hijacking secondin-command.
Her not-so-peaceful existence is shattered when she’s mistakenly accused of murdering a well-known science-fiction writer and a police officer. Hailey must go on the run, dodging the law as she fights to find the real killer and clear her name.
Los Angeles Times reviewer Sarah Weinman compared Hailey to Lisbeth Salander, the tough-as-nails heroine of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”
“Something tells me that if Hailey Cain and Salander ever met, they’d circle around, size each other up and accept some grudging mutual respect that might, with a lot of time, develop into mutual loyalty,” Weinman wrote in 2010, praising Compton’s “deep understanding of all her characters.”
Compton said she came up with the character of Hailey Cain in late 2006, after she left her job as a copy editor at The Tribune and moved into a condo in downtown San Luis Obispo. Surrounded by young people, she started shaping a fierce, fearless female warrior with lots of emotional baggage.
“There’s certainly a higher tolerance for, and a greater interest in, women who are physically strong, trained in fighting and shooting,” said Compton, who observed female athletes while training at a local mixed martial arts gym. “(These are) younger women who take those physical skills for granted.”
That’s why it was so important for the author to show Hailey’s vulnerability.
“Some writers think it’s feminist to create a character who’s physically tough and physically strong,” Compton said, “but they don’t realize a 115-pound woman kickboxing her way through a crowd of male attackers just looks ridiculous.”
Having another character bail her out of a bad situation “felt more realistic than having Hailey miraculously take a gun out of someone’s hands,” the author explained.
Hailey’s softer side is also evident in her unrequited love for cousin C.J., a successful Hollywood music producer.
“C.J. was almost the starting point for the story,” said Compton, who wanted to create a familiar yet unattainable love interest that Hailey could turn to in times of trouble. “It came into better focus for me.”
As a 20-something woman who often operates outside the law, Compton said, Hailey Cain is a rarity in the crime fiction world.
“I’m not sure her youth and her lack of a specific character niche has been her best friend,” the author said, noting that crime novels tend to star older characters who are cops, medical examiners and prosecutors.
Still, she said, “Hailey not being a cop gives me more leeway to get her involved in a chase situation or an escape situation.”
Asked how closely she resembles Hailey, Compton said she doesn’t have much in common with her heroine.
“I don’t see myself as particularly reckless, or a risk taker,” said Compton, who admits to indulging in “quite a lot of vicarious living” through her characters.
That includes the speedy Aprilia motorcycle that Hailey rides in “Thieves.”
“I don’t ever give a character a fictional Prius so they won’t contribute fictional emissions to the fictional air,” Compton, a Prius owner, said with a laugh.
According to Compton, readers can expect to see more of Hailey Cain.
She recently finished writing her third Hailey Cain novel, and anticipates the series growing to four or five books in all.
“You should always write the kind of story that you yourself would like to read,” Compton said.