When Amber's hired by a lawyer from the largest, most respected law firm in the area to investigate a dodgy foreclosure, she finds that the situation is far more twisty and complicated that she expected — and she was expecting it to be twisty and complicated to start with. Assisted by her employees Julian Wu, receptionist and apprentice investigator; and Izzy Alphabet, computer guru, research assistant and journeyman investigator; and by an old friend from college, Drake Albie, she starts trying to untangle the threads and finds a snarl of fraud, extortion, deception and corruption surrounding a multi-million-dollar land development deal.
Throw some Russian mobsters, Russian gangs, a freelance enforcer, and a sweet little old lady with a gun into the mix, and stir well.
Margin Play contains examples of these tropes:
- Angry Guard Dog: The Doberman at Cullen's.
- Arbitrarily Large Bank Account: Amber insists on a large expense account as part of the contract with Hayes. He gives her a credit card in the name of the Davis-Caillion Corporation. When she asks what the credit limit on it is, he rather smugly informs her that she "couldn't max it out if she tried."
- Batman Cold Open: The process service on Thom Cullen. It's completely unrelated to the rest of the story.
- Bavarian Fire Drill: One of these, of the "all you need to do is look like you belong there and know what you're doing" variety is how Hastings got the Kitsmiller file from the files room at Barton, Cameron, and Clive's.
- Bittersweet Ending: The main bad guy loses —big time— in the end, and there's reason to believe that the rest of the bad guys will also be caught,so that's good. But Mrs Kitsmiller may still lose her house, and even if she doesn't, her neighborhood is still destroyed and dozens, perhaps hundreds, of other people have still lost their homes because of the scheme. On top of that, there's even some doubt if the development will even be finished, with the main backers heading to prison. Amber gets out from under the loans that were crushing her business, but she also has to face the fact that she did some things that put her into seriously grey territory morally and completely over the line legally; Amber and Drake realize that they care about each other a great deal, but Drake has to leave when Halcourt's PI shows up to serve him with papers for yet another lawsuit (see Frivolous Lawsuit).
- Breaking Speech: Amber finds herself on the receiving end of a speech to the effect of "You're just as much in the shadows as I am."
- Cigarette of Anxiety: Amber notes that "tobacco tastes better when your life is on the line." She also lampshades this trope during her second visit to Mrs. Kitsmiller's house, noting that smoking makes her look like she's nervous, which is exactly what she wants the person she's talking to to think.
- Compensating for Something:
- Corrupt Cop: Some members of the Seattle Police Department are bent. Amber doesn't know how many or which ones, so she doesn't dare go to the police about the beating she received.
- Drowning My Sorrows: Amber, at the very beginning, when it looks like she may have to close down the agency for lack of income.
- Empathy Doll Shot: In the neighborhood that has been foreclosed on for the development, Amber notes that there are no planters, toys or any of the other usual signs that people live there, even around the houses that don't have "SOLD" signs in front of them, which is depressing enough. Then she spots a battered and broken doll laying abandoned against the curb in front of one house...
- Enemy Mine Amber and Kasey, against Hansen, even though they don't trust each other and Amber and Govrolev, against the whole cabal, even though they have nothing in common except the way they feel about their respective businesses.
- Ethical Slut: Candace Estermont. She expresses concern that her lifestyle might not mesh with the values of a young couple she's interested in sleeping with and decides to not pursue it with them when Amber points out that doing so might cause them to break up.
- Europeans Are Kinky: Discussed by Amber and Candace; Amber points out why Drake is uncomfortable in Candi's apartment (BDSM gear, soft porn on the walls, etc.) and Candi responds with a comment about how she misses Europe because "Americans are such prudes".
- Evil-Detecting Dog: Lampshaded when Amber invites Drake in because her cat, Zork, likes him, then subverted by Amber's comment that it wasn't because she thinks Zork is a particularly good judge of character, it's just that she (Amber) considers herself an even worse one.
- Exact Words: Amber is very fond of this, and uses it to good advantage.
"Isn't that sign a little hard to see?"
- When she's serving the papers on Cullen, she swats the Doberman with a tightly rolled copy of the Wall Street Journal, then observes that state law prohibits process servers from carrying a weapon during service, but "there's nothing against the aggressive use of literature that I know of."
- Invoked following the confrontation in the conference room, when Amber explains to Julian that recording the whole conversation was perfectly legal, even though the other party didn't know it was being recorded, because there was a sign (of the legally-required size and shape) posted on the bulletin board stating that the premises were under audio and video surveillance.
"The law is like the Purity Test, Julian... All technicalities count."
- When she's talking to Stavros, she says she "hasn't seen [Drake] in a while." She hasn't; it's been at least a few minutes since she last saw him, and she didn't say how long of a while it had been.
- Eyes Never Lie: Amber comments on this about Kasey, during her meeting with him in the bar.People say that the eyes are the windows to the soul; it's true, but only when the person being viewed opens that window. Charles Kasey chose that moment to, and I knew what I saw behind the black humor and artful apathy; something old and ugly and very human. Something society has always been too frightened to examine but depends on just the same. I wanted to look away but I didn't.
- Former Teen Rebel: Amber references several instances of drug use and excessive drinking from her younger years. She also unnerves Julian by telling him that she knows "exactly what a tongue piercing is for" because she used to have one.
- Frivolous Lawsuit: Halcourt's method of operation against Drake, and why Drake shows up on Amber's doorstep in the first place.
- Gangbangers: The gopniki the cabal makes use of as muscle. Russian and Eastern European guys in their teens and young twenties. They admire and follow Vadim.
- Genre Savvy: Amber reads crime novels but knows where fiction differs from reality. Brad Hansen also reads crime novels - and loves the movie Scarface - but didn't pay as much attention (see Wrong Genre Savvy).
- Good Cop/Bad Cop: Sanduski (bad cop) and Hammermann (good cop). Amber recognizes it and calls Hammermann out on it, and he replies that it was worth a try.
- Gory Discretion Shot: A written version when Amber notes that "The details of his demise were gruesome enough that even the nightly news didn't want to elaborate". Another character says that when the body was found, there "almost wasn't enough left to identify".
- Grey-and-Grey Morality: Of the "Both sides team up to fight an unquestionably evil third party" variety. Only the main antagonist and one of his underlings are unrelievedly bad.
- Groin Attack: Amber does this to a guy who's trying to hold her while another man administers a beating. He lets go of her."I reached backwards, felt denim and a zipper under my fingers and squeezed. Hard, with a twist. The grunt became a scream and the arms holding me went away.
- HeelFace Turn: Yeah, there's one. No, we're not going to say who does it. Not even in spoiler tags. It would ruin the whole story.
- The Idealist: Julian Wu. He's still young enough that he is surprised when things that "shouldn't happen" do, like people having guns illegally, and powerful people harassing people who can't fight back.
- I Need a Freaking Drink: Amber. Twice.
- Indy Ploy: Amber is quite good at making it up as she goes along. (See also Xanatos Speed Chess)"Julian's eyes were the size of boiled eggs. "Holy crap. Where do you come up with this stuff, boss?"
"I come up with it as I'm laying it out," I said. "Julian, sometimes to win you just have to talk faster than the other person can think."
- Instant Web Hit: It's not YouTube, but aside from that, this is what Amber threatens Hastings with after she finds out who he is and what he's really up to."Izzy, how public could we make what we're talking about here?"
Izzy snorted. "Are you kidding? It'd be on CNN in four hours."
- It's a Small Net After All: Averted. While Facebook and Google are handy, digging stuff out of the labyrinth of the Internet is difficult, takes time, and doesn't always work.
- Jurisdiction Friction: The main reason why Agent Hayes needs Amber's firm to help him out.
- The Mafiya:
- Vadim is unreformed and runs a gang of gopniki.
- Govrolev may or may not have reformed.
- There are also a couple dozen gopniki (Gang Bangers) who serve as dumb muscle for the bad guys.
- Izzy knows far more than she's happy with about how the Mafiya works because she grew up surrounded by them.
- My Rule-Fu Is Stronger Than Yours: When Agent Hayes tries to intimidate Amber by "throwing the book" at her, she responds by pointing out exactly why what he is saying is total bullshit.
- Necessary Drawback: Conversed, when Amber and Izzy are talking about collecting from the law firm for the process service:" [Izzy] grinned and nodded as she quoted me. "In full, on time, without complaint... pick any two." "
- Never Mess with Granny: Mrs Kitsmiller greets Amber at the door with a revolver when Amber goes to her house the first time, because the gopniki have been harassing her. Subverted — It turns out she doesn't know how to use it, and on top of that it's not even loaded, and she doesn't know how to load it.
- New Media Are Evil: Averted. The Internet, text messaging and high-tech communication in general are all tools the good guys make heavy use of.
- Not So Different: Uses twice, once by Amber and once on her. Amber tells Govrolev that they both feel the same way about their companies; Hastings points out to Amber that she's just as much on the shadowy side of the law as he is.
- Only Known by Their Nickname: Izzy Alphabet. Her real name is an Eastern European tongue-twisting mass of letters. Julian compared it to "alphabet soup" the nickname stuck. Amber states that she has never managed to say it correctly.
- Playful Hacker: Izzy. Some of the things she does aren't legal, but she's not malicious and she doesn't damage anything. She just digs out information that folks would prefer wasn't found.
- Pragmatic Hero: Although Amber is concerned by the suffering the development deal is causing people, her main focus is keeping her business afloat and her employees safe. She also cheerfully blackmails an FBI agent for over a hundred thousand dollars, and conceals a triple homicide from the police.
- Private Investigator: Amber, of course. Also Andrew Stark and Stavros. Julian and Izzy are training to get their certifications; Julian is an apprentice and Izzy is a journeyman.
- Punch-Clock Villain: Charles Kasey.
- Reality Is Unrealistic: Amber invokes this when Drake suggests that they break into a house and steal a piece of evidence. She explains that it won't work for three reasons: She doesn't know how, the security system "is probably smarter than we are", and oh, yeah, breaking and entering is a crime and she doesn't want to go to jail. Drake's response is "So, it's not like in the pulp novels, then?"
- Reasonable Authority Figure: Mark Hammerman. Amber exposes his attempt to manipulate her (see Good Cop/Bad Cop) but he takes it with grace and does not attempt to antagonize her further.
- Reckless Gun Usage: Beer and AR-15s are not a good combination, as one Thom Cullen finds out.
- Reliably Unreliable Guns: Justified. Amber's pistol does jam but the model, a Jennings J-22 is infamous in the gun community for its propensity to malfunction. Also, she tries to clear the jam and keep shooting - rather than tossing the pistol aside as is standard for this trope.
- Scar Survey: Amber, to Drake the morning after he arrives, as he's making breakfast shirtless.I could see the pale stripes of several scars on his back and arms, as well as a puckered circle on his lower chest.
I gave the scars an appraising glance. "I'd guess knife."
"Two of them are. One was a broken bottle."
I pointed at the round scar. "And that?"
He shrugged. "Termites."
I stirred cream and sugar into my cup. "I didn't know termites carried nine-millimeter handguns."
"A thirty-eight, actually."
- Sherlock Scan: Amber pulls one off on Hastings, identifying his client as a retired widow even though he thought he was being careful to not tell her that.
- Tattooed Crook: Vadim, sort of. When Izzy first sees a picture of him, she spots that he's had a tattoo removed from his forehead. This makes her quite sure that he was in prison in Russia before he came to the US.
- Techno Wizard: Izzy. She's both a hacker and a cracker, when the need arises. Subverted in that Amber knows how most of what Izzy does is not too difficult if one really understands how the internet works, but she lets Izzy get away with the "wizard" mystique because Izzy needs the confidence.
- This Is Reality: Amber, during the confrontation in the conference room. She points out that"This cowboy-cop shit might fly in Hollywood, but we're in the really-real world. You know, where little people like me have rights."
- Throw 'Em to the Wolves: What Kasey did to Hansen, when he told the gopniki that Hansen was responsible for Vadim being killed.
- Unspoken Plan Guarantee: The reader only finds out what the plan was 3 chapters from the end of the book, after it has worked. She didn't even tell her employees or Drake that there was a plan.
- Victoria's Secret Compartment: At various times, Amber stores a business card, a flash-drive, and a gun in hers.
- Walking Shirtless Scene: Drake doesn't bother to always get fully dressed. Amber mentions how she doesn't mind one bit.
- Wrong Genre Savvy: Hansen seems to think that he's the protagonist in a heist work.
- Xanatos Speed Chess: On those occasions where Amber does have a plan, she often has to modify it as she goes.
- You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Hansen has this planned for Kasey. And Kasey knows it.