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by Stephen Mack Jones
Soho, February 2017
312 pages
ISBN: 1616957182

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

An ex-cop turned private investigator cracks wise, turns a cynical eye on the wealthy and well-connected, fights city corruption and, when push comes to shove, is prepared to take down the bad guys using whatever means necessary. He has a loyal sidekick, a friend on the force, and a skilled hacker to aid him in his investigations. Sounds familiar?

It is, and it isn't. Stephen Mack Jones has collected all the tropes and cliches of the American PI tradition and arranged them lovingly while setting them down in a vibrant setting: the potholed streets of Mexicantown in Detroit. August Snow, a hero with an evocatively contradictory name, has returned home after wandering abroad, moving into the house he grew up in, determined to rebuild the neighborhood and his community, one house at a time. Like many an ex-cop PI, he has become conveniently wealthy, having won a lawsuit against the city that fired him unjustly. He can now afford to return to his mixed-race roots, child of a Mexican Catholic who raised him on Sor Juana and Pablo Neruda, and an African American cop, who passed on his taste for Raymond Chandler and police work. (The author has previously published poetry, and it shows without being obtrusive.)

Before he has barely unpacked, he's summoned by a wealthy woman whose husband's death he once investigated to her palatial Grosse Pointe Farms home. She thinks something's not right at the bank that brought her her wealth. The CEO is keeping her in the dark, and she's not used to being sidelined. She wants Snow to look into it and is characteristically haughty when he reminds her he's no longer a police officer. He agrees to take a look, but before long realizes there's something much more complicated than simple embezzlement going on. Whatever it is involves high-level programming, the FBI and, before long, murder.

The plot is busy, as if a whole bookshelf full of Robert B. Parker and Ross McDonald insisted on coming along for the ride, and the ultimate confrontation turns into an OK Corral showdown. But the narrator's voice is lyrical and sly and rich with a mix of poetry and wisecracking. His cast of characters is lovingly drawn, and the setting is a 21st-century map of mean streets that say something about our world. The author cleaves a bit too devotedly to Chandlerian tradition, crowding the story line with several books' worth of ideas, but those are rookie mistakes of a gifted writer. If this is the start of a series, it's the Detroit streets and the hero's remarkable voice that will sustain it.

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, March 2017

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