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THE WAYS OF THE DEAD
by Neely Tucker
Viking, June 2014
288 pages
$27.95
ISBN: 0670016586


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

October in Washington, DC: the colors of Autumn are in full bloom in the nation's capital, enchanting tourists and locals alike. But a few blocks north of the Mall Sarah Reese, the teenage daughter of David Reese, a powerful federal judge, has been found dead, her body tossed in a dumpster, in a run-down district populated by an ethnic mix of the hopeless and despondent. Newspaper reporter Sully Carter suspects Sarah's death may be linked to others in the area; but the others were black or Hispanic, while she was - in the words of a local resident - "the first white girl to come through here since God was a baby." The police dismiss Sully's theory, understandably reluctant to have the public thinking there's a serial killer on the loose, and anxious to make a quick arrest.

Resolutely old-school, hobbled by a fondness for drink, and scarred both physically and metaphorically by his experiences covering the Bosnian war nearly two decades earlier, Sully navigates the shabby backstreets and corridors of power on his 1993 Ducati motorcycle, forming a Faustian alliance with a local underworld figure who has his own reasons for wanting the crime solved quickly. Before long he's locked in battle with people in his own newsroom, which includes Melissa Baird, a manipulative, college-trained Metro editor who bludgeons Sully with his alleged mishandling of an important news story in the past. His investigation will also lead him to confront the dead woman's father, the odds-on favorite for the next Supreme Court appointment and an old adversary of Sully's. Before the saga is ended, the newshound will discover other bodies near the site where Sarah Reese died, and his own life will be on the line in a sinister twist that readers won't see coming.

A debut novel drawing on the author's twenty-five year career as a journalist (fourteen with the Washington Post), THE WAYS OF THE DEAD is atmospheric, taut and fast-paced – but not your clichéd serial killer tale. Instead we are treated to a deftly-plotted, original and informed story that draws the reader into the dark underbelly of the nation's capital and the life of a journalist fighting to get, and then tell, his story. Although there are occasional information dumps that easily could have been edited out, they are more than offset by passages of lyrical writing that will leave readers breathless, as when Sully revisits his experiences in Bosnia:

In the late winter of the third year of the war, when spring was still just an idea, he flew into the city on an aid flight... He spent the night in the hack hotel, the Holiday Inn, and went to the hospital the next morning to talk to a doctor he knew for a story he was working on about surgeons operating without electricity or anesthesia or running water. He stopped in the morgue on his way out because the only way to count the dead in a city with no phones was to go there and count noses. There were several bodies on stretchers and on the freezing concrete floor and there was Nadia, eyes closed and half her head gone, heaved in twain by shrapnel from a mortar. The rest of her body, when he had pulled back the sheet, was completely untouched.

...He was hearing her voice...like a chant, like a prayer, when they made love, as if it were carried by the breeze that would blow in from her balcony window.

§ Since 2005 Jim Napier's reviews and interviews have appeared in several Canadian newspapers and on various crime fiction and literary websites, including his own award-winning site, Deadly Diversions. He can be reached at jnapier@deadlydiversions.com

Reviewed by Jim Napier, May 2014

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