When Sarah Reese, the teenage daughter of a powerful Federal judge, is discovered in a dumpster in a bad neighbourhood of Washington DC with her throat cut, the local police immediately arrest the three nearest black kids, bad boys who are members of a gang. Sully Carter, a veteran war correspondent, newly returned from the war in Bosnia with emotional scars far worse than the ones on his body, suspects there’s more to the case than the police would have the public know. With the nation clamouring for a conviction, and the bereaved judge soon due for a Supreme Court nomination, Sully pursues his own line of enquiry in spite of the obstacles thrown at him by government officials, the police and even his own bosses.
I had a sneaky eye on this one from the minute it arrived into the bookstore where I work, due to the temptation of a cover recommendation from Michael Connelly, and a Washington setting promising echoes of George Pelecanos. To be honest, I could not have been any more delighted with this book, as it not only delivered in spades from this starting point, but also imbued all the social critique and wry humour of The Wire too. I know. You’re intrigued now too aren’t you?
I will immediately put my hands up and confess that I do usually do a slight bodyswerve when reporters carry the weight of a crime book. With a few exceptions, I sometimes find that the plot overshadows the characterisation of such protagonists, and they merely become a conduit for whatever browbeating issue/murder investigation ensues. Not this one. Oh no. What Tucker delivers is not only an enthralling murder investigation (based on the real life case of the 1990’s Princeton Place murders), but a plot that is strengthened and illuminated by two of the best characters I have read for some time- reporter Sully Carter and his cohort, the streetwise gangster Sly Hastings, whose intimate knowledge and personal involvement with the seedy underbelly of Washington provides a regular source of information for Sully. Sully is a weary, cynical, PTSD suffering, former war reporter, physically and mentally scarred by his experiences. A little too keen on the drink, but a harbinger of not only a strong moral core, but a tenacity for justice and truth that shines through in his mercurial personality. I loved his character, whether dealing sensitively with bereaved families, facing up to the arrogant David Reese (father of the initial murder victim) who has tried to sink Sully’s career before, and his pure obstinancy when berated and sidelined by those intent on scuppering his investigation. Equally, Sly is a gem of a character, sassy, bursting with street smarts and possessed of an almost charming disposition that belies the violence he is so capable of meting out, and the fear he instils in others. Together, their exchanges are pure gold with Sully attempting to squeeze information out of Sly, and Sly pretty much only volunteering what suits him, but equally, very capable of a few surprises…
Despite the very character driven nature of the book, not only with Sully and Sly, but with the police officers, Sully’s work colleagues, local residents and the associates and families of the victims, the plot stands solidly throughout. Not only does it bring into focus the political power and wrangling inherent in Washington, but perhaps more ardently, puts into the spotlight the undercurrents of racial tension, urban crime and poverty that underscore the nation’s capital. In his writing, Neely Tucker gives a voice to the dispossessed and the ignored, especially in relation to his character’s linking of a series of murders where the victims cannot hope for the same pursuance of justice afforded to the likes of Sarah Reese, as the daughter of an influential figure. Through Sully Carter these voices resonate loudly in the book and it is gratifying to see that one man embodies the dogged determination to bring their killer to justice.
So with such a glowing review, there is little for me to add, except, you should buy this book. Free up some quality reading time, get yourself comfortable and prepare to be gripped and enthralled in equal measure. A great debut and I think Michael Connelly succinctly sums it up: “If this is Tucker’s first novel, I can’t wait for what’s coming next.”
Neely Tucker was born in Lexington, Mississippi and is a former war correspondent, who worked in many places where people would shoot you for free. He is the author of Love In The Driest Season, a memoir about war reportage. He is now a staff writer for The Washington Post. For more see www.neelytucker.com
(I bought this copy of The Ways of the Dead)