In 1945 San Francisco, a police detective’s investigation exposes a tangled political conspiracy and international espionage in Niles’ debut crime/political thriller.
With its opening line, this novel gets off to a dramatic start: “They said the cleaning lady had run out of the house, screaming into the street.” When police inspector Andrew Johnson arrives at the scene, he sees why: There’s a horribly burned corpse on the garage floor, curved around a small sledgehammer. From above, it looks like a Soviet hammer and sickle. But nothing is what it initially seems in Johnson’s investigation—not even the cleaning lady. (Indeed, not even Johnson himself: He looks African-American but is also half-Irish.) The overall mystery encompasses elements that initially seem as foggy as San Francisco itself, including a secret radio, a Chinese launderer (of both clothes and money), mysterious foreigners, Italian fishermen, a femme fatale, a sketchy bartender and a Cuban law student named Fidel. In his debut, Niles shows great skill in characterization, deftly sketching the players’ back stories to help readers make sense of their present actions. Johnson, for example, has some faults, but he’s compassionate, observant, brave and clever. He’s no idealistic dreamer, though; when he was 5, he saw his father murdered by Chicago drug dealers. The plot is tricky but not overly contrived, and it never relies on cheap narrative devices. Niles uses his historical and geographical settings well; there are even a few deliberate anachronisms, explained in an afterword. For all the novel’s high drama, however, it thoughtfully explores questions of morality and the human condition: “I think there are a lot of people with maybe some good intentions at some point in their lives who come to realize they’re nothing but suckers….Maybe we’re all suckers, but if we can find just one thing—one good thing—we should hang on to that and the hell with all the rest,” says Johnson.
A sophisticated, deft and exciting thriller and a great beginning for a planned series.