This crime thriller by N Lombardi is truly a mixed bag. The story is strong and might have been written this morning, its themes are so timely. However, the presentation gets in the way.
Before I get to the plusses, here are the minuses. I double checked to make sure I wasn’t reading a prepublication copy, with the publisher still planning to put a team to work finding the many, many typos, homonym problems (‘lead’ vs led), wrong words (‘she dumped her face onto the newspaper’), and lapses like ‘slow gin’ and the artist ‘Van Gough.’ Writers depend on words. Carelessness with words suggests they may be careless with myriad other aspects of their work.
That apocryphal copy-editing team might also object to the overuse of adjectives for insignificant details, head-hopping point of view, or this, which appears in a tense scene in which American GIs are clearing an Afghan village of terrorists. The soldiers, Felson and Darfield, an African American whose nickname is Shortstop, need to make a 25-yard dash for their vehicle and are expecting to take fire. It’s an effective life-or-death moment, unaccountably interrupted by the author’s commentary: ‘“It’s like stealing second.” Felson was referring to second base in baseball, the position protected by the shortstop, and the most common base stolen in the game. Darfield had played shortstop for the Yankees farm team, the Florida Gators, hence his nickname.’
Not only was I repeatedly jolted right out of the story by copy and editing problems like these, I now know Lombardi doesn’t trust me to figure out where Shortstop’s nickname came from.
Still, I stuck with it. The story itself, inspired by a true event, takes place after Felson and Shortstop return to the States. Both attend a veteran’s PTSD treatment program in Manhattan, and neither is readjusting well to civilian life. Felson is homeless, which stands out in the small New Jersey town where he grew up, and attracts the attention of the police. In a pointless confrontation, three police officers beat up Felson, who dies at the scene. Gruesome video spreads online like wildfire.
Dr Tessa Thorpe, chief counselor at the veteran’s project, and her colleagues are grief-stricken. Immediately their concerns turn to Darfield. Felson was his hero. And he’s missing. Within days, the three police officers who beat Felson to death are themselves murdered by a sniper. Tragic as Felson’s death was, murderous revenge only compounds it.
Despite having few clues, the police suspect Darfield, and the hunt is on. Lombardi convincingly describes the jockeying among the various local, state and federal investigating agencies.
After Darfield is arrested, the story evolves into a riveting courtroom drama. Darfield’s attorney, Nathaniel Bodine, is elderly, blind and a veteran himself. He’s aided in the courtroom by his daughter, Emily, also a lawyer. If you like courtroom dramas as much as I do, Bodine’s legal stratagems will keep you turning pages.
As characters, Bodine and Emily are interesting and clever, but opposing counsel doesn’t really have to try very hard. Tessa Thorpe occasionally does something not quite convincing – outbursts of tears or words – and her deputy is a complex character with secrets. Darfield, the centre of the story, is solidly constructed.
Lombardi should get credit for tackling many current issues confronting American society: over-aggressive policing, innocent victims, cops as victims, the problems veterans face, prevalence of gun ownership and, especially, the increasingly fraught relationship between black and white constituencies. And he manages all this without becoming overly preachy. The makeup of the jury, when Lombardi finally provides it, is a roadmap for these schisms.
So often, crime thrillers don’t leave a lasting impression. You turn that final page, and forget all about them. This one, despite the presentation flaws noted, provides a lot to think about.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars