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by Sam Reaves
Pegasus, November 2008
320 pages
ISBN: 160598003X

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

When he returns stateside after being wounded in Iraq, Tommy McLain finds there's nothing left for him but sad memories in his home state of Kentucky. People have long headed up the interstate to start fresh in the Windy City. Chicago, why not? At loose ends, he decides to head to the city, where a high school friend has a job and a spare couch. Tommy isn't sure what he'll do with his life, but in the meantime he'll find some kind of work, make a few friends, and figure out what's next for him. But before he works out his future, he sets off a chain of events as deadly as any he encountered in the desert.

It starts innocently enough. A woman he meets at a party is having a problem: Some creep is stalking her. The police can't do anything about it, not until a crime is actually committed, so Tommy does what comes naturally: he finds out who the guy is and tracks him down to have a word. Unfortunately, when they face off in an after-hours bar, things get complicated. The creep has a gun. So does Tommy, and he's a faster draw. It's not until the next day that he learns the creep was the son of a high-ranking member of the Outfit. That Outfit boss assumes a rival mobster is at fault, and takes his revenge. Things go downhill from there. Before long, Tommy is in the center of a tangle of rivals, from old-school Chicago mobsters to CPD cops and FBI agents.

In many ways MEAN TOWN BLUES has a classic noir storyline, with a hapless hero trapped in a bad situation that progressively gets worse, led on by a femme fatale who is in equal parts seductive and treacherous. But there's one key difference. Tommy McLain doesn't fit the role of doomed loser. He's a cross between a Travis McGee-style knight in tarnished armor and a resourceful western hero. He may have stumbled onto the set of a film noir by mistake, but he's not willing to give up. He's a terrific character laconic and honorable, a seemingly simple man who sometimes reveals hidden depths. That's also a capsule description of Reaves' style, which is equally straightforward and spare, with moments of profound emotional resonance.

Reaves proved with his earlier books, DOOLEY'S BACK and HOMICIDE 69, that he is one of the most accomplished writers of our time. MEAN TOWN BLUES is a more playful book than these. Watching Tommy figure the angles and make the best of a bad deal is entertaining, and Tommy is good company as he single-handedly copes with a snowballing disaster, never losing his cool or his moral compass.

If you haven't discovered Reaves until now, MEAN TOWN BLUES is a good place to start. Then go back and read the rest.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, October 2008

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