Friday, March 24, 2017
Three Mysteries at Hand Worth Solving AUGUST SNOW by Stephen Mack Jones, Soho 312 pp., $25.95 , POLICE AT THE STATION AND THEY DON’T LOOK FRIENDLY By Adrian McKinty Seventh Street, 319 pp., paperback, $15.95, CONVICTION By Julia Dahl Minotaur, 320 pp., $25,
Former Detroit cop August Octavio Snow, narrator of Stephen Mack Jones’s “August Snow,’’ has a knack for making the right friends, a quality that comes in handy when he embroils himself in a banking magnate’s apparent suicide. The son of an African-American father and a Mexican mother — his middle name honors poet Octavio Paz — Snow was recently awarded $12 million in a suit for wrongful dismissal from the city’s police force. He was fired for blowing the whistle on high-level corruption and is using the payout to regenerate his Mexicantown neighborhood, several houses at a time. Meanwhile, his generosity and direct approach engage a proliferating, rag-tag network of intensely loyal allies, including a blue-eyed FBI agent, a former soldier willing to fight the good fight, a handful of neighbors — including the mightily entertaining Carmela and Sylvia — and a young lad that Snow pulls from the brink of becoming a drug dealer.
Jones, a Detroit-area poet and playwright, has immense fun with his first novel. He brings the city, its environs, and its eateries to vital life in a mystery coiled around the contemporary crime du jour of cyber-finance meddling. His is that rare tale that, despite its thriller-level violence, maintains a fiercely warm heart at its core — and ends far too quickly.
If newly-diagnosed asthma, fatherhood to six-month-old Emma, and mostly-happy domesticity with his girlfriend, Beth, has softened a few of Detective Inspector Sean Duffy’s edges, it hasn’t dulled his keen survival instinct or determined pursuit of dastardly criminals in the slightest. (That said, those two qualities are often in direct conflict with each other when it comes to Duffy.) In Adrian McKinty’s “Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly,’’ when challenged by a medical test, Duffy actually cuts down on his cigarettes-and-vodka-gimlet intake, but rest assured that nothing could ever cut down his curiosity-driven investigative work. There’ve been no murders in Carrickfergus in nearly a year, so when someone appears to be using drug dealers as targets for their crossbow practice, Duffy and his trusted colleagues, super brainy Detective Constable Lawson and semi-gentleman farmer Detective Sergeant McCrabban, jump on the case. But they are working in 1988’s Northern Ireland, a country mired in the violence of The Troubles: Are these new attacks the work of the Direct Action Against Drug Dealers group, or are they politically motivated?
McKinty imbues his writing with same level of attention to wit and cultural touchstones as the scrupulous care he takes structuring the police-procedural aspects of the novel. In the first chapter alone, there are references to philosopher Gaston Bachelard, Ireland’s once all-encompassing Holocene forest, “The Wicker Man,” and Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick, creator of the iconic Che Guevara portrait; elsewhere we learn of Duffy’s favorite musical accompaniments to life (he’s partial to Arvo Pärt, can’t stand Kylie Minogue, and considers Ella Fitzgerald, Schubert and Mozart comfort music). All this, plus we get to observe the normally flying-by-the-seat-of-his-pants detective grappling intentionally with his future.
Julia Dahl’s intrepid reporter Rebekah Roberts is in investigation mode once again in Dahl’s latest, “Conviction.’’ A freelancer primarily for a New York City tabloid, Roberts discovers a possible wrongful conviction involving one DeShawn Perkins, a man who has spent two decades in prison for a triple murder. As Roberts delves into the long-ago crime — which occurred during a time of heated unrest between the African-American and Jewish communities in early-’90s Brooklyn — she gets a shock: Her semi-mentor, friend, and mom’s current boyfriend, Saul Katz, was an arresting officer in the original case.
Dahl’s previous Roberts novels, “Invisible City’’ and “Run You Down,’’ are as much powerful indictments of the damage wrought by contemporary social issues as they are cannily crafted mysteries, and “Conviction’’ is no different. Dahl deftly weaves two timeframes and two stories — the crime and its belated reinvestigation — into a suspenseful and compulsive page-turner while adroitly capturing Brooklyn in what’s left of its melting-pot glory. And Roberts is a terrific character: She grapples with a certain amount of built-in anxiety, but she’s also tenacious, determined, and genuinely curious about the world around her; she brings immense empathy to her work, diligently homing in on and exposing the most damning issues damaging our civil fabric. Roberts’s dogged, heart-and-mind-centered pursuit of truth, fairness, and justice shines like a beacon in the dark, and Dahl renders this with grace and substance. What honed Dahl’s savvy writing? My favorite clue is in the acknowledgements, where she thanks her mom “for telling me to ‘bring a book’ wherever I go.”