Written by Scott Von Doviak — Last year was a banner year for debuts. Jane Harper’s The Dry and Jordan Harper’s A Lesson in Violence both won widespread critical acclaim and topped two of our reviewer’s year’s best lists. It’s too soon to judge if Charlesgate Confidential will enjoy a similar success – the year isn’t over yet – but don’t bet against it.
The Charlesgate Hotel, built in 1891, was designed to be one of the jewels of Boston’s Back Bay, but by the time 1946 had come around it was in decline. Its sixth floor was a brothel, and the eighth was home to Dave T’s weekly poker game, a place where Boston’s underworld could put aside their differences to enjoy high-stakes gambling in a neutral venue where everyone’s safety was guaranteed. The decision of three young Southie criminals – brothers Jack and Shane Devlin and their cousin Pat – to rob the game kicks off the story. The gang end up being co-opted into an art heist and their actions reverberate through to 1986 and then on to 2014.
In 1986, Charlesgate is student accommodation for the local university and journalism undergraduate Thomas Donnelly is boarding there while working for the student paper and lusting after Jackie St John, who is way out of his league. There are rumours about hauntings, suicides, and a 60s sex cult so Thomas’ editor suggests a series of articles about the building’s past to be called Charlesgate Confidential. That’s how Thomas comes into contact with a Boston ex-con fresh out of jail after a 40-year double murder stint.
In 2014, the Charlesgate is now a luxury condominium block. One of its residents is Jackie Osborne, nee St John. There has been a murder in the building, and the investigating detective, Martin Coleman, calls upon her after her flat was broken in to shortly after the murder. She is busy organising the Charlesgate Alumni 30th Anniversary and is waiting for an answer to her invite from the successful true crime author Thomas Donnelly.
The novel moves sequentially through time, devoting a chapter to each timeline, 46 to 86 to 16, before starting again. It’s an ambitious structure but the author really makes it work. One of the book’s delights is the way events in one chapter inform the next even though there are decades between them. It only succeeds through the author’s incredible attention to detail, an attention that extends throughout the book. It’s present in the nicknames the students give to characters at the Charlesgate – Chest Guy, Professor Pussyhound, etc – in the way that people interact at different points in the timeline and in the reports of the Red Sox’ failed attempts to win the World Series which pepper the narrative.
The unusual structure really keeps the plot moving along and you’re never left in one era long enough for it to drag. There’s lots of action too; more than a few murders and two major heists. The second is the theft of 12 priceless paintings from the Gardner Museum – a crime that the police never solve, but one that Donnelly, Devlin, Coleman et al all have a crack at.
The author has a knack for portraying his characters sympathetically. Perhaps Donnelly is the most relatable. It’s surely no coincidence that he is the only character to narrate his story in the first person. He’s a kind of everyman who is good natured, friendly and intelligent but a little lacking in confidence socially. The result is that I never grew tired of spending time with the large cast, though I did sprint a little towards the end to find out the answer to the mystery of the missing art.
Hard Case Crime/Titan Books
CFL Rating: 5 Stars