Fever City by Tim Baker

3 Mins read

A buzz has been building about this book, and it started long before its release, when the early copies went out to – how shall we put it? – the opinion formers of the crime fiction world. We listed Fever City as one of our most wanted novels of 2016 at the beginning of the year and now, finally, we have the chance to tell you how good it is.

One part of the book is set in 1960 and ex-cop turned private detective Nick Alston is investigating the disappearance of a young boy from his Los Angeles home. But this is no ordinary child, Ronnie is the only son of one of the most powerful people in the country: Rex ‘Old Man’ Bannister. Bannister is connected to everyone worth knowing – JFK, Hoover and Howard Hughes among others. He’s a wealthy political mover and shaker with his finger on the country’s pulse, and his hand around its heart.

But Old Man Bannister doesn’t seem to have a care for Ronnie, nor really want Alston involved. In fact Bannister’s fourth wife, Betty, brought the private detective in to work alongside the local cops, headed by Captain Schiller. Alston quickly learns that Ronnie is a pawn being used in the manoeuvres of powerful men. In fact, Betty is not even Ronnie’s mother. Ronnie’s mother is her sister, who happens to be Bannister’s previous wife.

The kidnappers want a million dollars in exchange for the kid or they’ll return him… piece by piece.

A few years later, tormented killer Hastings is also being drawn into a scenario he doesn’t like. He’s seeking redemption, a man with a past that’s changed him, but maybe not irrevocably. There are men who want to take down the US President, John F Kennedy because he won’t play their game. Hastings is forced to go along with the process or face being killed himself.

And another part of the story takes place in 2014, with Nick Alston’s son in Dallas. He’s a reporter, talking to people who claim knowledge of JFK’s assassination. Most of them seem to be crazies, conspiracy theorists who connect the young president’s demise to anything remotely credible. But then Alston comes across something that brings the past bubbling up. Could his father possibly have been involved in the Kennedy assassination?

It’s only January, but if Fever City doesn’t make it into the top five reads of 2016 it will have been a stunning year for the crime fiction genre. The book is part crime, part conspiracy thriller that throws an imaginative new light onto one of history’s most familiar and forensically examined events. As a result much of the background feels familiar, particularly the players, yet Baker comes at it all from a very different angle.

The plot swings periodically between the three timelines, locations and characters, each signposted by the date – 1960 (Alston), 1963 (Hastings, but sometimes 1964 and 1960 too) and 2014 (Alston Junior). The main strand is Alston senior’s hunt for Ronnie. This means reading takes a little concentration and initially there’s room for slight confusion as both Alstons are written in the first person, while Hastings is in third person. But the writing is so strong there’s no problem persevering and ultimately there are good reasons for the split timelines – the pay off is well worth it.

The prose is intelligently understated, cleverly lyrical, complicated yet simple. Nearly every page throws up some beautifully constructed lines. The author handles the very different eras well. The 1960s sits comfortably against the 21st century. If anything, once you get into it the 60s feel a more comfortable environment than 2014.

More detail would spoil things for you, but there are twists and turns aplenty and nobody is quite who they seem. Overall this is a brilliantly constructed story with a clever plot and intelligent prose. One for the collection…

Fever City is released on 21 January. We interviewed Tim Baker about writing this novel in New Talent November last year. You can read it here.

Faber & Faber

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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