A down-on-his luck black cab driver investigates a pair of murders for lack of better options in this debut mystery.
It’s the dog days of the Carter administration, and Brian Layne languishes in the Pittsburgh ghetto version of national malaise. He lost his job as an airline ramp agent three years ago when he punched out a supervisor who uttered a racial slur. Since then Brian’s been collecting unemployment checks and driving an illegal jitney cab, the land-line version of Uber. Worse, his marriage has come apart since he found his wife in bed with a low-life named William Anderson “Billy-Mack” Macklin III (though assignations with sexy secretary Claudia console him). Employment opportunities are limited—a job interview goes south when Parrish Richards, the squirrely interrogator, inexplicably pulls a gun—so Brian spends his days waiting for calls with the other drivers at the jitney station, where the main pastime is hiding joints from the neighborhood cops. A slow-to-begin plot kicks in when Brian discovers Billy-Mack slumped over the wheel of his car with a fatal hole in his jugular. At the request of Billy-Mack’s grieving mother, Estelle, and to put his unused criminology degree to work, Brian starts poking around the killing in a desultory fashion that turns steadier after she offers him $700. When Richards turns up shot, Brian folds that death into his amateur caseload too. His investigative methods are less than dynamic—searching real estate and probate records; asking folks in the ’hood if they know anything—but as his suspect list grows to include a local drug dealer and the racist airline boss, they get him targeted by death threats and potshots. Reminiscent of Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins mysteries, Griffen’s detective yarn features some colorful characters, well-observed dialogue, and vivid evocations of a nighttime ghetto where “the ‘leisure ladies’ were swinging to the ditty bop, reggae beats.” Unfortunately, the novel drops several of the most intriguing players, and the plotting becomes a mess. Brian’s investigation makes little headway until, toward the end, a new character arrives out of the blue and carpet-bombs him with revelations; the climactic scene is missing; and the murderer’s self-contradictory machinations make no sense. Readers may feel as lost at the end of the book as Brian was at the beginning.
An atmospheric but feckless and sometimes incoherent whodunit.