A young boy drowns in a tragic accident in a lake in upstate New York. Fourteen-year-old year old Tommy and his two friends are sure they know who drove him to take his own life: the boy’s father is also convinced and pressurises the local Sheriff, Tommy’s father, to make an arrest. But there is not enough evidence, and the boys decide to take things into their own hands.
When you begin to review a book with the phrase, “How the hell have I not read this author before?” you know you may be on to a bit of a winner. Such is my reaction to this recent discovery of Sam Millar, a comparatively old hand in the crime fiction genre having already released six novels and a memoir, is a regular contributor to anthologies, writes for stage/radio and also holds a number of literary awards. With a highly colourful background himself, accrued from his formative years in Northern Ireland, and his personal involvement with both the IRA and a $7.4million heist from the Brink’s Armored Car Depot in Rochester, New York, Millar has been a bit of a welcome find…
With its central storyline based in a small town community in upstate New York and focusing on a group of three teenage boys, comparisons to Stephen King’s Stand By Me (one of my favourites) are justified to a certain degree, as this coming of age tale had me hooked from the outset. This small town has been brought to the edge of fear, by violent sexual attacks on local teens, with Millar focusing on the atmosphere of fear and suspicion that these have wrought. The book is narrated in the first person by Tommy (the book being bracketed by himself as an adult) recounting the events in the small community in which he grew up, as the son of the local Sheriff. Following the suicide of a young boy, Joey, himself a victim, three teenage boys, Tommy, Brent and Charlie, make a blood-brother pact, to exert their own retribution on local man, Norman Armstrong, who has been tried, but not convicted of Joey’s attack. Tommy, also experiences the added complication of a fledgling relationship with local girl, Devlin, from the wrong side of the tracks, which leads to its own heartbreak for our young crusader. The characterisation of Tommy and his cohorts is absolutely spot-on with all the attendant naivety, rivalry and angst that accompanies their teenage selves. All three are from differing backgrounds, and Millar captures the intrinsic differences of their familial backgrounds superbly, including the underlying tensions of Tommy’s parents, the welcoming attentions of Brent’s flirtatious mother, the more well-to-do status of Charlie’s family and Devlin’s peculiar artistic upbringing. The interplay and dialogue between the boys in particular, is completely engaging in their mission (influenced by their love of superhero comics) to exact revenge on the altogether creepy Armstrong, despite the danger and family strife that arise from their actions. I also loved the understated effect of the lawful investigation on Tommy’s father, in the glare of publicity. His descent into despair, caused by the pressure of the case, is gradually revealed, as his son blunders on regardless, fuelled by the impetuosity of youth, seemingly unaware of the effects of this investigation as a whole, close to home.
This is a real read-in-one sitting book as the slowly escalating sense of peril and Millar’s descriptive prowess, both of characters and location, keep you immersed in the events of this small but multi-faceted community. There is a brilliant build-up of tension, offset by the powerful dynamics of friendship and family that Millar brings to bear on the story. Millar pulls no punches in his depiction of the violence that permeates the attacks, with the more violent interludes in the book being perfectly placed, so the details of these and their ramifications for the community at large, become more vital. I did feel the ending was a little rushed, in comparison to the pace of the rest of the book, but taking into account what had gone before that was of little consequence. Highly recommended and an author that I will unquestionably seek out again.
(With thanks to Brandon Books for the ARC)