Hip, crisp dialogue and swift prose rife with apt, unflashy literary allusions; a credibly brilliant and likable heroine; an effectively chilling behind-bars mise en scène; and a firecracker plot all add up to a very cool, smart thriller.
Bartender by night, cute Brooklynite Ivy Seidel pens fiction and is all hot to publish in the New Yorker. While waiting out unlikely fame, she agrees to teach composition in a literal school of hard knocks: Dannemora Prison. Abrahams (Oblivion, 2005) assembles a convincingly menacing student body: Latino gangsters, rip-off artists making the wicked most out of Harvard MBAs and straight-ahead, ice-cold killers. Between classes, she’s futzing with a fairly iffy story called “Caveman” and hanging with either bohemians or suits, all the while reluctantly discovering that the macho men inside the pokey seem much more exciting. They fill her on some primal level with both fear and fascination. Especially Vance Harrow. Serving significant time for his role in a long-ago heist-slash-murder in a casino, he intrigues Ivy not only with his stoic mystery, but, of all things, the way he fulfills his class assignments—with lean, vivid images that read like a better Charles Bukowski. Convincing herself that so good a writer can’t be a truly bad egg, she begins amateur sleuthing, revisiting the slot-machine scene of the crime, chatting up former eyewitnesses, exhuming the teacher’s pet’s conspirators from strip clubs and other suitably demimonde haunts. But Harrow again will surprise her. Studded with alarmingly precise renderings of explosive violence and pop-culture references ranging from Adam Sandler flicks to the Harvard Crimson to Wal-Mart nametags, the story reads like up-to-the-minute Ross MacDonald, Abraham’s idol and the presiding eminence of brainy crime fare.
Truly clever writing about a clever writer turned true detective.