A down-at-the-heels journalist returns to his hometown to investigate the murder of an old friend in this debut novel.
Wes Byrne, former reporter, is at the end of his rope. His most important story—the investigation into illegal dumping of toxic waste into a river—resulted in a family’s blaming him for a man’s death; his beloved wife, Jan, succumbed to ovarian cancer; and his grief so informed his recent work at the Providence Sentinel that he’s been sacked from his columnist job for being too depressing. When his friend Stevie Darby is stabbed to death in a bar, Byrne is forced to travel to his hometown for the funeral, where his luck stubbornly refuses to get better. He has no sooner arrived back in East Hastings when his Camry is stolen; he’s reacquainted with a former bully–turned-cop; and a potential liaison with an ex-crush is spoiled by her sudden, violent death. Pretty soon, Byrne is up to his ears in a conspiracy involving a car theft ring and the export of stolen goods, punctuated by a rash of murders that all echo the death of Stevie. And when his former editor Hopkins Brewster “Hoppy” Weatherly demands that he use his talents for the local paper, Byrne begins to wonder whether any story is worth the damaging fallout. If this all sounds too grim to be entertaining, fear not. The prose is fluid and eminently readable, and what could have been a hard-boiled ordeal is given a light, almost irreverent touch. Essick boasts an affectionate eye for the dynamics of male friendship and the vagaries of small-town life. (At one point, Byrne muses about a local diner: “The mention of the Town Crier brought back warm memories of teen-age nights spent languishing in the comfortably upholstered booths and sharing tall tales of sexual exploits.”) This helps mitigate Byrne’s inherent passivity and inertia as a protagonist and those occasional moments when the light touch veers into farce and verges on glib. These minor flaws prevent the novel from being as compelling a read as it could have been. But Essick’s skillful handling of both characterization and the central mystery means that, while the pages may not turn as quickly as they could, it’s still an enjoyable read.
A satisfying mystery and sympathetic characterization make this author a writer to watch.