Review: THE WAYS OF THE DEAD and MURDER, D.C. by Neely Tucker (Penguin/Windmill)

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A fantastic, must-read new thriller series

Sarah Reese, the teenage daughter of a powerful Washington, D.C. judge, is dead, her body discovered in a slum in the shadow of the Capitol. Though the police promptly arrest three local black kids, newspaper reporter Sully Carter suspects there’s more to the case. Reese’s slaying might be related to a string of cold cases the police barely investigated, among them the recent disappearance of a gorgeous university student.

A journalist brought home from war-torn Bosnia and hobbled by loss, rage, and alcohol, Sully encounters a city rife with its own brand of treachery and intrigue. Weaving through D.C.’s broad avenues and shady backstreets on his Ducati 916 motorcycle, Sully comes to know not just the city’s pristine monuments of power but the blighted neighborhoods beyond the reach of the Metro. With the city clamoring for a conviction, Sully pursues the truth about the murders — all against pressure from government officials, police brass, suspicious locals, and even his own bosses at the paper.

A wry, street-smart hero with a serious authority problem, Sully delves into a deeply layered mystery, revealing vivid portraits of the nation’s capital from the highest corridors of power to D.C.’s seedy underbelly, where violence and corruption reign supreme — and where Sully must confront the back-breaking line between what you think and what you know, and what you know and what you can print. Inspired by the real-life 1990s Princeton Place murders and set in the last glory days of the American newspaper, The Ways of the Dead is a wickedly entertaining story of race, crime, the law, and the power of the media. Neely Tucker delivers a flawless rendering of a fast-paced, scoop-driven newsroom — investigative journalism at its grittiest.

It’s taken me a while to finally get around to reading this series, despite buying The Ways of the Dead on the day of its UK release last year. Nevertheless, with the recent publication of Murder, D.C., I decided it was time to give it a try — and I’m really glad that I did. I read both of these novels back-to-back, and in a handful of blissful days of reading. Both of these novels are fantastic — brilliantly written, plotted and paced, they are easily two of the best crime novels I’ve read in quite a few years.

While an introductory novel, The Ways of the Dead  does not spend much time on exposition. It throws readers right into the story, as Sully Carter — wounded and scarred reporter back in D.C. — investigates the murder of a judge’s daughter in a dodgy neighbourhood in Washington, D.C. Carter is grumpy, a highly-functional alcoholic. He’s brash, selfish, but utterly brilliant at his job. Through him, we get to learn a bit about the newspaper industry at its heyday (the series is set in the late-1990s, and early 2000s). We meet some of Carter’s less-than-reputable, questionable acquaintances — including Sly Hastings, one of the capital’s criminal “warlords”. Over the course of the investigation, he needs to learn as much as possible, as quickly as possible, while also figuring out legal ways to actually acquire the information. Sly is by no means a good influence, but he is an interesting (ultimately chilling) character to spend some time with.

I didn’t expect the ending — there were a couple of moments when the story (Tucker’s and also Carter’s evolves) beyond what we have been led to believe. It’s brilliantly done, and I devoured this novel in just a few sittings, irritated whenever I was forced to turn my attention away. A superb debut, and probably the strongest crime debut I’ve read. It was no wonder, therefore, that after finishing this I moved straight on to Murder, D.C.

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Murder, D.C. brilliantly builds on the groundwork laid down in The Ways of the Dead. Sully continues to develop, as we slowly peel back some more layers to his character and past. In the second novel, he’s sucked in to an investigation related to the dead son of an influential D.C. family:

When Billy Ellison, the son of Washington, D.C.’s most influential African-American family, is found dead in the Potomac near a violent drug haven, reporter Sully Carter knows it’s time to start asking some serious questions — no matter what the consequences. With the police unable to find a lead and pressure mounting for Sully to abandon the investigation, he has a hunch that there is more to the case than a drug deal gone bad or a tale of family misfortune. Riding the city’s backstreets on his Ducati 916, Sully finds that the real story stretches far beyond Billy and into D.C.’s most prominent social circles.

A hard drinker still haunted by his years as a war correspondent in Bosnia, Sully now must strike a dangerous balance between D.C.’s two extremes — the city’s violent, depraved projects and its highest corridors of power — while threatened by those who will stop at nothing to keep him from discovering the shocking truth. The only person he can trust is his old friend Alexis, a talented photographer and fellow war zone junkie, who is as sexy as she is fearless, but even Alexis can’t protect Sully from everyone who would rather he give up the story.

What struck me most about these two novels was probably Tucker’s prose style: it is very journalistic, but in the best possible way. The narrative is very tight, filled with colourful observations and small details that can add so much colour to a scene without using many words. The characters feel real and alive (unless, of course, they’re the corpse…). Sully Carter is an interesting, engaging protagonist — think Hugh Laurie’s Dr. Gregory House, only a journalist instead of diagnostician. He’s an alcoholic, he’s a wild-card and difficult to control. This may sound like an archetypal cast member to a thriller like this, but Tucker does a fantastic job of giving Sully his own voice and making him interesting and distinct. Perhaps (and this is speculation on my part) Tucker’s own experiences, mixed with those of some of his colleagues have allowed him to fully form this character with a level of verisimilitude that is lacking in some other protagonists of the (sub-)genre.

This second novel unfolded in an interesting an unpredictable way, as Carter navigates the high and low societies of the capital city, not-entirely-smoothly balancing his street-smarts with more appropriate manners and mores of the elite. He once again buts heads with overbearing, pampered and entitled denizens of Washington, as well as his bosses at the newspaper; but he also comes face-to-face with some of DC’s worst criminals. It makes for an interesting, gripping, and tumultuous ride.

In both of these novels, Tucker takes the reader on a journey through the journalistic, criminal and law enforcement worlds of Washington, D.C. Of course, it’s fictionalized, but it certainly feels realistic and informed by the author’s own experiences. I particularly liked the fact that, in each novel, the initial case informs a much larger story — it give the stories greater scope. Both of the novels are filled with observations about and commentary on politics, society, journalism and human nature. Excellent stuff, really.

I could gush for pages about these two novels, but I think I’ll leave it here. Needless to say, I loved both of these novels, and cannot wait for the third book.

If you have any interest in crime fiction, you need to read this series. Absolutely marvellous. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

*

The Ways of the Dead and Murder, D.C. are published in the US by Penguin and in the UK by Windmill Books. As a complete aside, those UK covers are absolutely fantastic.

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