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by John Straley
Soho, July 2018
272 pages
ISBN: 1616958782

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Cecil Younger is in court and in trouble. He's an investigator for the public defender in Sitka, Alaska and an alcoholic who has sworn off the booze long enough to have a loving marriage to a marine biologist, provide a home to an autistic man who was once his legal ward, and raise a beloved daughter who, as Younger explains to the court, has been lost to her cell phone. This is the beginning of his allocution, a statement made by a defendant before sentencing. And a most engrossing allocation it is, though longer than usual and a little hard to explain. It begins, as he tells the judge, in the fall, as the rain never stops falling and people are irritable, "during the period of the jokes and well before the deaths and mayhem."

That's not entirely truthful. The jokes keep coming, along with the mayhem and murder. It begins as Cecil meets with a client who wants to "seek employment with the city" in other words, become a snitch. Since the client is pretty dim, as many of them are, Cecil makes sure to give him a copy of "Baby's First Felony," an illustrated self-help book with useful advice such as "don't wear the tennis shoes you stole to court when the guy you them from will be there to testify and his name is still written inside of them." Though the clientele Cecil works with is not very sophisticated, the method a criminal crew is using to smuggle drugs into the state is, and once an upstart rival disrupts the narcotics trade, things get complicated. By the time Cecil's daughter looks away from her phone long enough to get caught up in a dangerous situation, he knows there are police he can't trust, so he turns to his former clients and a group of forest-dwelling homeless men to set things right, using a plan so ramshackle and intricate it would make Rube Goldberg blush.

In addition to a propulsive, almost hallucinogenic pace threaded with poetic touches of the Alaskan setting and the warmth of Cecil's affection for his family, Straley creates a large and colorful cast of characters infused with tenderness for the poor and the troubled, likely informed by the author's previous career with the public defender's in Sitka. It's a big-hearted book and a wild ride. Though this is part of a series, there's no need to start at the beginning - though if that's your choice, good news: Soho is reissuing them all.

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, July 2018

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