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by John Straley
Soho Crime, December 2021
288 pages
ISBN: 1641292539

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In prison for what he had done to rescue his daughter Blossom in the previous book in this series, Cecil Younger, former criminal defence investigator, has had his original twenty-five year sentence reduced to a mere seven years and was hoping to spend the rest of his time quietly accumulating good conduct points and an early release. His success at getting eighteen years knocked off his sentence in court has made him a minor celebrity in Lemon Creek Correctional Center, where he coaches other inmates in how to behave at their parole hearings. One of these is a large man of mixed race and considerable authority, Albert Munro, aka Fourth Street, who enlists Cecil to teach him how to speak to the women on his upcoming parole hearing panel in return for extending his protection against the random beatings an unprotected inmate might expect. Fourth Street also has some interest in a more intimate relationship with Cecil, something that Cecil views with mixed feelings. Middle ground is found in a reading program that includes James Baldwin and Adrienne Rich.

The daughter whose rescue got Cecil sent up in the last book is in her senior year of high school but she still has a weakness for Nancy Drew and aspires to a career in private sleuthing. Her best friend is a classmate named Georgina, but who is called, as you might expect, George. George has been raised by two people she believes to be her birth parents. The father is a member of a traditional Tlingit family, the mother white. For reasons she will come to regret, George has sent off genetic samples of herself and her mother to a commercial testing service and the results indicate that she is not the child of the parents who raised her. Worse, George was not merely adopted but the test reveals that she was the baby stolen from her birth parents, a Tlingit woman and a white man, in a highly-publicized crime that has remained unsolved till now.

As a result, George is encouraged by an overworked social services functionary to get to know her birth parents by spending time with them in their home. George finds the mother sympathetic, the father less so, and as it proves, he turns out to be decidedly creepy. Blossom, whose heart is in the right place but whose judgement is less dependable, tries her best to help, and thus lands up in a very dangerous situation. Despite his current incarceration, her father must try his best to rescue her once again.

There is an oddity of tone about this book that I found hard to identify at first. Forced BDSM activity plays a significant part in the proceedings as does jailhouse homosexuality but the former is fortunately not described in great detail and the latter remains merely a potential possibility. While one is relieved not to be burdened with the details of what happened to Blossom in her capture, the ambivalence of Cecil to Street's overtures is intriguing.

At the very outset, Cecil informs us that he "will tell the story as if I were on the outside with Blossom.... I enjoy writing as if I know what she is thinking and what happened to her." Thus the "outside" passages are written in the third person, which readers associate with omniscience, but in this case are filtered through the consciousness of a character who never observed what he is describing. But the "inside" passages, written in the first person, sound much the same. The result is a curious distancing that is both protective and somewhat constrained.

We don't see a great many crime novels set in Alaska and those I can think of offhand tend to be set in the bush and deal with the climate, landscape, and wilderness particular to Alaska. While it is true that there is a bear that looks a bit like an elephant on the cover, it only makes a cameo appearance. Otherwise, the setting is essentially small city, the weather is unremarkable, and the most Alaskan element is the Lemon Creek Correctional Center, which seems rather more humane than its counterparts in the lower 48, whether real or fictional.

There is an off-centre quirkiness about this book that I found attractive if occasionally distracting. Although it is well along in the Cecil Younger Investigations series, I never felt I'd come too late to the party even though I was unfamiliar with the earlier books. And Cecil Younger himself is a character well worth meeting. I would be happy to see what happens next, especially between him and Fourth Street.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, January 2022

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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