Written by Neely Tucker — Do you miss The Wire? Does the wait for the next George Pelecanos novel seem endless? Neely Tucker is a welcome find that will comfortably fill the void. His first thriller The Ways of the Dead featured veteran, war-scarred Washington reporter Sully Carter and was well received. Now the author builds on his growing reputation with Murder DC, transporting us once again to the less than savoury side of America’s seat of political power.
The book opens with the discovery Billy Ellison’s body in the Potomac river. He’s the son of DC’s most influential African American family, but he’s been discovered in a section of the Washington riverside widely regarded as a violent drug haven. With the implication that Ellison could have been involved in all manner of illegal activity, metro reporter Sully Carter starts asking some serious – and dangerous – questions. The police are singularly unable to find a viable lead, but Carter has a hunch that there is more to the story than a drug deal gone bad. As he digs deeper, he finds the story stretches far beyond the unfortunate victim and into the city’s most prominent social circles.
No doubt thanks to his own journalistic background, Neely Tucker delivers a razor sharp, tightly plotted thriller with not a word wasted or misplaced. Similar to David Simon’s depictions of inner city life in Baltimore, and those who have the power to change it, Tucker brings into focus the political power and wrangling inherent in Washington. He also spotlights the undercurrents of racial tension, urban crime and poverty that aren’t normally associated with the nation’s capital. By choosing a central victim from a family largely protected by the power base in Washington, but found dead in a renegade drug-dealing outpost, Tucker lets us see through Carter’s eyes and provides wider comment on a city that’s usually much better thought of, and he does it beautifully. The extent to which those in power maliciously manipulate and influence the fates of Billy Ellison and those closest to him is skilfully and sympathetically handled, ratcheting up your resentment towards those responsible. An additional bonus of this largely flawless plotting and social comment, is that there are a couple of scenes that will make you outwardly gasp, but then quickly fill you with a real sense of sadness. Be strong gentle reader.
Sully Carter is a gem of a character. He’s cynical, world-weary, emotionally and physically damaged, and a terrier of a reporter. He studiously avoids counselling, and finds his therapy at the bottom of a glass. Because his character carries such an authentic voice having witnessed terrible events in his former career as a foreign correspondent, he is fearless and carries a strong moral centre. His moral position means he runs his mouth, acts intuitively, although sometimes impetuously, but more importantly makes him dogged in his pursuit of the truth about Billy Ellison. The equally mesmeric character of Sly Hastings, a gangster who helps Carter (but for his own benefit), creates a compelling partnership, which is the real linchpin of the series to date. Likewise, there is the added joy of a tenacious, ballsy and impressive female cohort to the men in the shape of Alexis, a war-zone photographer, who keeps Carter on his toes and adds a real liveliness to the central plot.
It’s always nice to reach the end of a review and feel a sense of satisfaction that a book has resonated so positively with you, and Murder DC is one of those books. Fellow fans of grittier American crime fiction will love this, and it would be foolish to not seek out the marvellous debut, Ways of the Dead too. Go on. Treat yourself.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars