Investigative reporter Carter Ross is trapped on the fifteenth floor of a [Newark] office building, having unlocked the secrets of a major drug smuggling operation. He is being systematically hunted by an armed psychopath. And all he has for protection is a ficus plant.
Something like this in a query letter would have been the smart way to entice a literary agent for Brad Parks's debut novel, Faces of the Gone. Parks offers this retrospective in a tips piece he wrote for his Web site on how to become “well published.” He doesn't reveal the presumably dumb ways he tried to get an agent—if, in fact, he got one—but we do know Faces of the Gone did get published, and in a big way. And we know Carter Ross somehow manages to elude certain doom in this novel, as its success brings him back five more times to star in novels that quickly follow.
Faces of the Gone hit the streets in 2009. The following year it won two major literary awards: The Private-Eye Writers of America's Shamus Award for best first novel, and the Nero Wolfe Society's Nero Award for Best American Mystery. It was (and may still be) the only novel to win both awards. And (we're not done with the awards yet) with his third Carter Ross adventure Parks added the Lefty Award, for best humorous mystery, to his trophy shelf, thus becoming the first novelist in civilized history to win all three of the aforementioned awards. The fourth in the series (the following year) won Parks another Lefty and another Shamus, the latter for Best Hardcover Novel.
Mainstream critics compare him favorably with crime writers Michael Connelly and Janet Evanovich, and with famed humor columnist Dave Barry and—deep breath—the previously inimitable Mark Twain. (I'd have put a “!” after that last, except “!”s, alas, have fallen from stylistic favor.)
It is, however, to gasp. All this and the guy's only 41, and—hang on—he writes his novels sitting at the corner table in the Hardee's in a Middlesex County, Va. crossroads town while his two kids are in school and his psychologist wife is at her job.
We've come at last to the part where I tell you a little about Faces of the Gone, as if you needed my input on top of the judgments of all those august award-givers and savvy critics, and the army of eager readers waiting in line to snap up Carter Ross books as fast as they're unpacked in the bookstores. This is the part where I might try to tip the scales for those of you who prefer as much information as possible before deciding whether to go along with the herd or strike off on your own.
It's likely too late for me to damn with faint praise or add gush to the geyser, were either my intent. Instead I shall try to be as fair as Carter Ross is in his role as star investigative reporter for the Newark Eagle-Examiner (fictitious alter ego of The Ledger-Star, where in 2007 then news feature writer Brad Parks copped the New Jersey Press Association's top prize for enterprise reporting with his four-part series on the 1967 Newark riots.)
Oh, hell, who am I kidding? I loved Faces of the Gone. It's a romp of a read, so much fun I went ahead and read the next one, Eyes of the Gone, even though doing so was completely unnecessary for this report!!
As you can see in the italicized paragraph above, Faces of the Gone most evidently lives up to what the savvy critics have called a mix of humor and gritty realism. I prefer “robust cocktail of suspense and lethal danger with a twist of wry” but we're not here to quibble. Some go on and on about the plot, but no matter how good it may be, how compelling, how memorable and sublime, plot alone, even chased by the aforementioned robust cocktail of attributes, does not a toe-curling Lefty/Nero/Shamus winner guarantee. That's what Brad Parks implies, anyway, in another tip in his Seven-Step Guide to Becoming Well Published.
We'll get to that in a second, but first, here's a shot-glass summary of Faces of the Gone's humdinger of a plot, which I don't mind saying pulled me through the book with the force an electric can opener's whine has on Carter Ross's insatiable tomcat Deadline. (That's another selling attribute, by the way—character--which I also will get to immediately following the shot-glass plot summary but just before revealing the tip from Parks's seven-step guide.)
I've changed my mind. This is getting too complicated. Here's the tip: Voice. (I made it boldface, the way Parks did, because I agree with him that voice is the vital component of a successful novel. At least it is for me. The voice in Faces of the Gone and the other Carter Ross novels is that of Carter Ross. It's his voice that narrates the story. You either like the narrator or you don't. Straight up, Carter Ross can get a little annoying. But then so can every other human being I know. Ultimately what it comes down to is whether you like someone, warts and all. I like Carter Ross.
Plot: First of all, Faces of the Gone is an unusual (for me) hybrid of thriller, crime-solving procedural and whodunit mystery. We get a glimpse of the killer at the start of each chapter in a brief italicized account of what he's just done or is about to do. Then Carter Ross takes over, letting us tag along as he and his colleagues and news sources go about trying to get to the bottom of what happened and who's behind it. While trying to avoid becoming victims themselves.
The drug kingpin villain, known only as The Director, shoots four of his street dealers to death in a vacant lot in one of Newark's drearier neighborhoods. He does this to discourage his other dealers from making the same mistake as the four victims. To stretch their supply they'd diluted the nearly pure heroin they were selling on the street, ignoring his instructions not to mess with the product. The Director's grand scheme is to corner Newark's heroin market with the very best product available. He sends the other dealers a sternly worded memo along with close-up photos of what remains of the victims' faces.
Hard as it may be to imagine, there is humor in this deadly, grisly setup. More than just Carter Ross seeking protection from a ficus plant. It's that voice again. Ross's voice. Despite the peril, the horror he must engage to do his job, Ross almost invariably exhibits a fundamental joi de vivre. Even after his house blows up, destroying his possessions, his cat, he soldiers on, cracking wise, flirting with the hot city editor, ducking the neurotic managing editor who struggles with vowels and fears the aging executive editor whose enthusiasm for imagined stories gives him imaginary erections.
Through it all Carter Ross cracks wise and soldiers on, chasing the story.
[find more Friday's Forgotten Books reviewed at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog: http://socialistjazz.blogspot.com/]