Written by Robert French — Junkie is a crime thriller that roars and booms its way up, down, under and over the Western Canadian city of Vancouver. Although it was called the most livable city in the world by the Economist last year, everybody in Vancouver knows that it has more than its share of drug addicts and homelessness. For them, the city is just about survivable, which is something French looks at in some depth via his debut, self-published novel.
Cal Rogan is a cop. That blue blood runs in his veins. Unfortunately he dillutes it several times a day with heroin. So, though he’s a cop at heart he’s been kicked off the force, and is living on the street and shooting up. His only link to his former, normal Vancouver lifestyle, is that his ex-wife Sam allows him to see his daughter Ellie every Saturday. But if he doesn’t get clean soon, a court order will come into effect taking away that privilege.
Waking up in his usual alleyway stupor one morning, blood inexplicably staining his jacket, he heads over to his lifelong friend Kevin’s house where he keeps some clean clothes. Then, cleaned up, he goes to see Ellie, and repeats his promises to Sam that he intends going to rehab. The shock comes when he gets back to Kevin’s and finds the man with a knife planted deep into his chest. His cop brain kicks in and he starts analysing the murder scene, hides his bloodied jacket, and calls his former employers.
Surprisingly, the coroner rules it suicide – a relief for Rogan because it’s easy to put the jacket on a junkie in a case like this. On the other hand, he doesn’t believe it was suicide and vows to find Kevin’s murderer. Maybe if he can do this, and kick the heroin, he could get his old job back and be a proper father to Ellie.
Soon the plot grows very complex, and various suspects present themselves. As he digs around he discovers that Kevin was testing a drug with the aim of curing dependencies such as alcoholism and heroin addiction. The tests were going wrong and on top of that Kevin’s death caused the share price of his pharmaceutical employers to plummit. Maybe big business interests were involved in his death. Then Rogan is attacked by a drugs gang. Perhaps it was a bad idea for him to go around robbing dealers in order to fund his dependency. Or maybe they had something to do with Kevin’s demise. Before long Sam and Ellie are in danger too, and Rogan’s best friend on the street, a drunk called Roy, is being terrorised. Though he hopes to impress the police by cracking the case, they begin to suspect it was him all along.
It was always going to be interesting to see how well French could pull off the key unique aspect of the story – having heroin addict as the detective. And it’s handled very well. Rogan constantly deceives himself, puts off quitting and goes off the rails now and again. Drug addiction running parallel to the detective’s obsession with his case works quite well in Junkie. It is sympathetically handled too, and the story confronts some of the widely held stereotypes regarding junkies and homeless people.
The plot is intricately woven – perhaps excessively so at times. Although Rogan, the narrator, occasionally has too much to say and overexplains things, there are frequent action scenes breaking up his discussions with the myriad of characters. Like many self-published mysteries it might have benefited from a more ruthless edit.
Having said that nearly all the characters are well-written and convincing, and Junkie makes for a gripping read. There are a lot of extremes here despite the book being set in livable Vancouver – rich and poor, family and street life, violence and gentleness, sickness and health, greed and sacrifice, and so on. It’s a surprisingly accomplished piece of writing with a compelling mystery and a subtext that says a lot about Western society. There are one or two rough edges but Junkie is more than worthwhile. It might just get you hooked.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars