A police officer investigates the murder of a singer amid racial and ethnic tensions in the mid-20th-century Midwest.
In this historical novel, Herder (Krazee Mouse Blues, 2015, etc.) introduces a variety of memorable characters who populate the St. Louis suburb of Marecage in 1963. Home to prostitutes, drug dealers, mobsters, and cops who subscribe to a wide range of moralities, Marecage is a low-rent district along the Mississippi River (“Several square blocks of rickety-brick nightclubs, taverns, flop joints, whorehouses, and warehouses, all squeezed along a crumbling cobblestone levee as if the city had swept all its filth into a pile and left it on the banks of the Mississippi for the next big flood to wash it away”). When crooner Eddie Devine is found dead in a Marecage motel room shortly after performing to an adoring, mixed-race crowd, Tony Waluska is among the police officers assigned to investigate. As the initial bungling of the crime scene unravels, Tony’s pursuit of the truth—during his breaks from “the worlds of smack and Jack”)—puts him at odds with the city’s power brokers and the people who have an interest in sweeping Devine’s death under the rug. Tony leaves town, returning in 1981 and renewing his interest in the cold case just as the city’s first African-American mayoral candidate would prefer to see it forgotten. Herder has a talent for developing his characters’ voices, not only in dialogue, but also in their frequent internal monologues (“Tony Waluska, well, he floats between the lines, hugging and kissing everyone, knowing everyone, a cop with a smile as big as his hands”). But the frequent use of racial slurs, while appropriate to the characters, grows grating. The sprawling cast of secondary players contains striking and fully developed figures, from ex-stripper Gloria Hallelujah to well-intentioned priest Father Piechowski. Although readers will likely lose the main thread of the plot among the occasionally wandering backstory, Herder ultimately provides an engaging mystery with a satisfying resolution.
In this engrossing and atmospheric tale, a racially charged killing reveals the fissures of an intricately drawn St. Louis community.