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by E.R. Brown
Dundurn, May 2013
296 pages
ISBN: 1459705831

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Tate Maclean is a seventeen-year-old prodigy who garnered a university scholarship on the strength of his early promise. But that was before his mother Elsbeth came down with cancer and his grades went through the floor. Kicked out of university, he turned to looking after her and his younger sister, Bree. Beth is prone to manic episodes, and Tate has become the sole support of the family. Facing a dead-end existence he's working in the Fraser Valley town of Wallace, BC, pulling lattes and espressos at a local coffee bar to make ends meet. Like much of British Columbia the region is awash in counter-culture types, including aging draft-resisters from the Vietnam War living cheek by jowl with bikers and an affluent younger crowd driving SUVs and sipping designer coffees to get their buzz. A drug by any other name.

One day Randle Kennedy, a customer at the coffee bar, asks Tate to deliver an envelope in exchange for a twenty-dollar tip; needing the money, he soon finds himself drawn into the shadowy world of the local pot industry. Kennedy is a charismatic figure who drives a bright yellow Porsche Speedster and lives in a gated waterfront retreat outside of town. Unknown to the Boys in Scarlet, at grow-ops across the Fraser Valley Kennedy produces a range of custom strains of pot for connoisseurs. Tate soon rationalizes his role in the business, convincing himself that no violence is involved, medicinal bud's already legal in several states, and that he is actually helping people like his mother, who get relief from some of the symptoms of their illnesses by smoking weed. No different, he's told, than drinking a single malt whisky. No one gets hurt.

That is, until the day Kennedy decides to expand his operations without telling some of his distributors, and things turn ugly. And complicating matters is a dangerous secret Elsbeth has been hiding from her family.

While Tate searches for a way to extricate himself from the mess he's gotten himself into, Kennedy's ringleaders move to teach him a lesson he won't soon forget, and despite his best efforts, the seventeen-year-old Tate finds himself at the deep end of a very dark pool.

Well-researched and convincingly told, ALMOST CRIMINAL is a revealing look at the dark world of the illicit pot business from the perspectives of grow-ops, distributors, users, and the gangs that lie behind them. The engaging protagonist is surrounded by believable supporting characters and the whole thing is wrapped in an entertaining plot. ALMOST CRIMINAL is an impressive debut, evidenced by the fact that it has already been nominated for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel. It's always a joy to mark the appearance of a fresh voice on the crime-writing scene, and we hope for more good things from this talented writer.

Since 2005 Jim Napier's reviews and interviews have appeared in several Canadian newspapers and on such various crime fiction and literary websites, including his own award-winning site, Deadly Diversions. He can be reached at jnapier@deadlydiversions.com

Reviewed by Jim Napier, January 2014

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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