Holy City by Henry Wise

3 Mins read
Holy City by Henry Wise front cover

Like so many novels in the noir sub-genre, Holy City by Henry Wise reveals the links between its main character’s past and their present predicament, and how, no matter which choices they may make, their fate is almost predetermined. However, what sets it apart from the pack is its lyrical prose, grace and examination of the racial and gender lines which still separate American society.

Will Seems has returned to his home town in rural Virginia following a decade spent in the state capital, Richmond (referred to locally as the Holy City). He left after the death of his mother in tragic circumstances. Returning ostensibly as a Sheriff’s Deputy, Will has begun to put his life together – but spends each night driving in his truck, looking for peace and finally snatching a restless sleep under the stars. Clearly there is more going on than is at first apparent.

Waking one morning after another of his night drives, he spots a house fire and recovers a corpse from the burning building. But the dead man is no stranger. It’s Tom Janders, a black man slightly older than Will, who saved his life and that of his friend, Sam Hathom, before Will left for Richmond.

An examination of the corpse reveals that Janders had been stabbed, so the fire must have been arson, set to hide the murder. With the assistance of his boss, Sheriff Mills, Will runs to ground a man spotted hiding in the woods that surround the house. To his surprise, Will recognises the man as Zeke Hathom, Sam’s father, and somebody Will is certain would not be involved in murder. Despite Hathom’s protestations, and ignoring Will’s doubts, Mills orders his arrest. Mills isn’t interested in investigating further and it seems to Will that the sheriff is happy a suspect has fallen in to their laps, and doesn’t want to look beyond this.

Tom’s mother, Claudette Janders, and Zeke’s wife, Floressa Hathom, have no faith in white justice, so they employ Bennico Watts, a black female private detective with a reputation for getting results, to investigate. Watts, who was fired from the Richmond PD for crossing procedural lines in the investigation of her suspect, relishes the idea of showing up the sclerotic, white, male-dominated police department. Claudette and Floressa appeal to Will to work with Watts, reminding him of his good heart, and the debt he owes to Janders and to Zeke’s son, Sam.

Will agrees. After all, he has already taken the first steps in being disloyal to the sheriff by hiding Sam at his house and helping him overcome the heroin addiction that has blighted his life since the attack all those summers ago. Sam is being sought in connection with a string of burglaries.

And so the stage is set. Can Will fulfil what he considers his moral obligation to Zeke and Tom, find the actual murderer and avoid a miscarriage of justice? Can he do it without exposing his role in protecting Sam? Which has the greater moral imperative?

Unfortunately for Will, he cannot control the headstrong private detective, who may be as concerned with showing up the local police department as she is in seeing justice done. Nor can he control his boss. Mills is virtually a law unto himself within the county and his motivations are gradually, devastatingly revealed as the novel reaches its climax.

Holy City is a delight for readers of authentic noir. Flawed characters are brought distinctly to the page, their secrets exposed and their motivations dissected and placed on display. The atmosphere is as hot as the cruel Virginia sun, and there is a grittiness and violence to the narrative which is at times shocking, but written with such confidence that it is never less than authentic. Holy City is a hell of a debut which readers of noir fiction are sure to enjoy.

For more Virginia noir also see SA Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland and All The Sinners Bleed.

Grove Press

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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