In Latitude Zero, cycling enthusiast-author, Diana Renn combines the competitive world of team cycling with an exciting murder mystery.
Seventeen year old Tessa Taylor and her boyfriend, disgraced cycling star, Jake Collier, are bandit riding (that is riding without registering and raising money) in the charity race Chain Reaction: Fighting Cancer by the Mile. Ten professional cycling teams from all over the United States are entered in the hundred mile race. The professional teams will leave the starting line first, followed by the recreational riders who are raising money for cancer by riding either the one hundred miles or one of the shorter race routes. Jake and Tessa will be doing the thirty mile route. Among the professional teams racing is Ecuador's Team EcuaBar with its rising star, eighteen year old Juan Carlos Macias-Leon, nicknamed el Condor because of the way he attacks hills during races.
Tessa is not really comfortable being a bandit rider in the cancer ride because some of the riders are cancer survivors and to her it somehow seems wrong. However, Jake does not feel this way. His plan is to join the ride after they make their way through conservation land. Tessa had first met Jake while interviewing him for her show KidVision on the GBCN network. Jake and Juan had been rivals on the EcuaBar juniour development team but Juan Carlos had made the pro cycling team. However, Jake had been kicked off Team Cadence-EcuaBar for distributing drugs. With Jake having lost his racing license and his cycling scholarship at Colorado Mesa University, his plan was participate in rides like this to keep his skills sharp so he could reapply for his license and maybe get into another university.
The Team Ecuabar owner is Preston Lane and one of Tessa's school, Shady Pines' alumni. Coached by Tony Mancuso the team has a new sponsor, Cadence Bikes which is owned by Chris Fitch. During the pre-race photograph, Carlos is strangely absent from the starting area. So while Jake has gone to retrieve his racing drinks which he forgot and which Tessa finds strange, she sets out in search of Carlos. She finds Carlos at the edge of the conservation land praying. Carlos asks Tessa to meet with him after the race to talk. He enters his cell number into her phone and they arrange to call at 2pm. Juan Carlos also gives Tessa his gold crucifix which she tries to refuse but eventually accepts and then leaves to join the race. Unfortunately, Jake sees the two of them together and since Carlos is his old rival, he is furious with Tessa and ditches her during the race.
At this point Tessa wants to return to the starting line and sign on as a volunteer because she feels she is doing the wrong thing. But at this point, Tessa isn't ready to drop Jake. On her way through the forest Tessa sees a white and green bike with a J. Macias decal. She assumes this must be Juan Carlos spare bike and that it's been stolen. She texts Juan Carlos telling him his bike is in the woods. No sooner has she done this than Tess has a frightening encounter with a man whom she first thinks is a race official. However he seems intent on finding the bike and asks Tessa where she saw it and not to mention him or the bike to anyone. He forces her to hand over her phone and wipes Juan Carlos's number and the video she took of him walking through the woods from the device.
Tessa meets up with Jake at the point where they will cut into the race and tells him what happened. Jake believes it was probably a bike theft and that she ran into the fence - the man who is going to resell the bike. Tessa wants to call the police but Jake wants none of that. The race starts and instead of waiting for the medium speed recreational riders to pass by, Jake enters the race with the faster riders. This forces Tessa to join and try to keep up with him. Tessa is stunned to see Juan Carlos riding far back of his team with the recreational riders and soon passes him. When Tessa sees a rider in front of her who is riding in memory of a cancer survivor she recalls her friend Kylie's mom who has breast cancer and she decides she needs to leave the race. But when she tries to leave on a sharp turn she crashes and brings down many riders too.
Tessa is taken back to the medical tent and confronted by Gage Weston, former mechanic from Team Ecuabar and one of the race marshals. Tessa is ashamed for being called out on bandit riding but is devastated when she learns that Juan Carlos has been badly injured in the pileup she caused.
There's a great deal of fallout after the race; her parents are furious with her, and Tessa is suffering from extreme guilt because she's certain that Juan Carlos crashed as a result of her actions. News coverage suggests that maybe something was wrong with Carlos bike, but Chris Fitch insists that all Cadence bikes are thoroughly tested.
Tessa ignores the frequent texts Jake keeps sending her but more worrisome are the strange, threatening messages she's now received on her phone from an unknown person - presumably the man she met in the woods. He calls her a liar and warns her against going to the police. This scary situation is compounded by Juan Carlos unexpected death from his injuries, the discovery that their garage has been broken into and Tessa's producer dumping her show. A second set of threatening texts from this person who is called Darwin, admits to breaking into her garage and demands that she meet him with Carlos's bike on Thursday.
A search of the area where the race took place and where Carlos's bike was hidden by Tessa and her friends Kylie and Sarita reveal no clues. Jake comes to Tessa's home late at night to try to make amends. Despite Jake's attempts to reconcile, Tessa wants none of it and breaks up with him. She notices poison ivy blisters on his ankle when he climbs out her window leading her to wonder if Jake saw Carlos's bike hidden in the forest. When she questions Jake, he denies being involved in stealing Carlos's bike and hiding it but Tessa now considers him a possible suspect. She considers he may have been using her as a cover to steal the bike.
Tessa decides to go to Compass Bikes to speak with Marisol (Mari) Vargas, the woman medic on the Chain Reaction ride to see if she knows anything about Carlos's missing bike. Although she initially goes to the shop on the premise of getting her bike fixed, Tessa learns about the bike drive underway to bring bikes to Quito, Ecuador in honour of Juan Carlos. Mari tells Tessa that she is flying to Ecuador to volunteer with Vuelta to teach bike mechanics to girls and women in Quito. Returning to Compass the next day to help with the bike drive, Tessa discovers from the pictures Gage shows her that Jake never did the race. Further conversations with Mari reveal people believe Carlos's bike was tampered with. Mari tells her that Carlos bike is being stored at Dylan Holcomb's bike school. Mari and Tessa go to the school and while Tessa distracts Dylan by pretending to be a biking student, Mari sneaks into his shop and takes pictures of Carlos's bike. They learn not only is Carlos's missing bike in the shop but also the bike Carlos was riding during race was tampered with. They decide to send this information to a friend of Tessa's who is an investigative reporter.
After the story about Carlos's bike breaks, Jake shows up at Tessa's home. Since his missing glove was found near the EcuaBar bike trailer, he is now a prime suspect in the tampering of the dead racer's bike. Jake confesses to Tessa that he tried to frame Carlos for doping but was caught. He wanted to get rid of Carlos who would have been deported and his career ruined because there wasn't room for two stars on the team. Now Jake wants Tessa to provide him with an alibi that they were never apart during the ride. However, there are too many unknowns about Jake, including why he never made it to mile twenty like he told Tessa. Tessa refuses his request telling him he should just tell everything he's told her to the police.
When her parents catch Jake at their home, they decide that maybe time away from Boston and troublemaker, Jake is in order. They decide to send Tessa to Quito, Ecuador to stay for three weeks with the Ruiz family while volunteering at Vuelta, an advocacy group in Quito that Juan Carlos was involved with. Vuelta works to make the streets safe for bikes and teaches kids how to ride and repair bikes. Before leaving for Ecuador, Tessa tells her parents that Jake is a possible suspect in Juan Carlos's homicide investigation. This leads her father who is an environmental law lawyer to take her to the Cabot Police detachment to tell Detective Lauren Grant what had happened on the morning of the Chain Reaction ride. However, Tessa doesn't tell them about the threatening text messages from Darwin, about being threatened by Pizarro nor about Juan Carlos's stolen bike or its possible mysterious secret contents. Instead she's hoping that a trip down to Quito will help her trace Carlos bike and learn why it is so important to Darwin. However, Tessa doesn't realize that her investigative efforts will uncover a much bigger operation, one that is illegal and has global repercussions for professional cycling.
Renn has crafted an exciting murder mystery using the world of competitive team cycling as a backdrop for story. Renn who identifies herself as an avid cyclist knows the sport and it comes across in her descriptions of races, bikes and team cycling. That is where this novel shines - she's writing about something she truly loves. There are many twists and turns in the plot but one of the main ones, the location of the missing USB drive, readers will quickly pick up on.
Her protagonist, Tessa Taylor is the host of a children's show, TeenVision. Since she became involved with Jake Collier she's let her friendship with her two best friends, Sarita and Kylie slip away and she now finds herself doing something unethical - bandit riding in a charity race. It is this action that results in Tessa being determined to discover why Juan Carlos crashed and to honour his memory by finding out what has happened to his spare bike and why Darwin and his gang are so keen to get the bike to Ecuador. The main problem with Tessa is believing a seventeen year old girl would have the nerve to confront serious, hard-core criminals, not in her hometown of Boston, but in the drug-ridden, corrupt locales of Ecuador where she would be entirely unfamiliar with her surroundings. Time and again, Tessa doesn't seem to understand the danger she's in or she doesn't care. Despite having the nerve to go into a strange club that's she's been warned about, she doesn't have the courage to get back on a bike after her terrible crash. It's these kinds of inconsistencies that mar this novel. Tessa does have some feminist pluck however, dumping bad boy Jake Collier and refusing to take him back even at the end of the novel when she's inadvertently vindicated him. Perhaps Jake's potential replacement, Santiago Jarmillo is more than enough incentive.
Even the criminals themselves, Darwin for example, seem unrealistic characters, rather pasty and overly benevolent towards a girl who's attempting to ruin their illegal gambling business. Balboa, one of Darwin's agents, whose real name is Bridget Peterson, requires little persuasion to turn against Darwin and help Tessa at the last minute.
Latitude Zero is divided into two parts;latitude forty-two which takes place in Boston, Massachusetts and latitude zero in Ecuador. The first part of the novel is reminiscent of Nancy Drew novels with Tessa taking on the part of Nancy and Kylie and Sarita her Beth and George while the second part sees Tessa as a bold sleuth bent on getting to the truth and finding a missing USB that holds the key to Carlos's bike and his deadly accident.
Readers may find this novel lengthy at 435 pages and that it lags at times as Renn weaves in numerous false leads that Tessa encounters in the second half. Overall though Latitude Zero is an interesting mystery with a satisfying ending that ties up all the loose ends. Tessa Taylor comes through with flying colours with a bit of help from a handsome Latin boy and an agent who turns informer.
Latitude Zero by Diana Renn
New York: Viking 2014