It’s a Mystery:  “We all have public lives, and private lives, and secret lives”

It's a Mystery Irma Heldman.jpg

Lives Laid Away
By Stephen Mack Jones
Soho Crime, 2019

Lives Laid Away by Stephen Mack Jones.jpeg

After Stephen Mack Jones’ splendid debut, August Snow (2017), it’s a pleasure to welcome the eponymous ex-cop back. As the Wall Street Journal put it, “Snow is an action-hero with the heart of a mensch.”  Now Snow must turn vigilante to fight a human trafficking ring preying upon the inhabitants of Snow’s beloved Detroit neighborhood of Mexicantown. They are already in a high state of paranoia brought on by the changes being felt since the 2016 election. Nighttime ICE raids—Immigration and Customs Enforcement—have become a regular occurrence. They troll the neighborhood in “the dark-heart hours” in sinister Suburbans with blacked out windows. Their mission:

Mapping potential “nests” and safe-houses of undocumented Immigrants. Their official motto? “Protecting National Security and Upholding Public Safety.”

In Mexicantown, we have a different motto for ICE: Si es marron, enciérrolo. “If it’s brown, lock it down.”

Snow was forced out of the Detroit PD after he began digging into allegations that the former mayor was corrupt. The wrongful dismissal lawsuit he filed awarded him twelve million dollars. He has chosen to invest that money back into the neighborhood. His  mission: to rejuvenate the community and restore his sense of self.

The son of an African-American cop and a Mexican-American woman, Snow is uniquely qualified to be the chivalric protector of his people. For all his toughness, he is a romantic with the soul of a poet—like his creator. His middle name, Octavio, is for the poet Octavio Paz.

In fact, some of my favorite crime writers are named for poets or are themselves poets. They all share a quixotic sense of knight-errantry. The chivalrous detective becomes involved in solving crimes through concern for the victim or because of a strong sense of justice. Often, their names are important clues to their character. Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is an amalgam of literary reference to Sir Philip Sidney, Christopher Marlowe, and the Marlow who occupies the moral center of several of Joseph Conrad’s tales.  More significantly, Chandler originally intended to name his detective Mallory alluding to Sir Thomas Malory the author of the classic chivalric romance Le morte d’Arthur.

Edgar Allan Poe, widely considered as founding the genre of detective fiction, was a poet whose reclusive heroes of mind and imagination, Dupin and Legrand, are set apart from ordinary men by their erudite pursuits, and arcane hobbies. Poe recast as detective the Romantic hero of sensibility who works outside the police bureaucracy. In Ellery Queen’s Poetic Justice, 23 Stories of Crime, Mystery and Detection by World-Famous Poets from Geoffrey Chaucer to Dylan Thomas (1967), Ellery Queen argues that poets, like detectives, seek to make order from chaos. The poet W.H. Auden supports this thesis in his important essay “The Guilty Vicarage” (Harper’s Magazine, May 1948). Auden did not himself write crime fiction but he was an enthusiast of the genre who contended that the most satisfying detective stories introduce crime into the “great good place” and then portray the restoration of order by the detective. The poet Cecil Day-Lewis, writing under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake, created the detective Nigel Strangeways, a character based on Auden.

Robert B. Parker describes his sleuth Spenser (“with an s, like the poet”) as a private eye with the build of a prizefighter and the soul of a poet. Spenser struggles to resolve the conflicting demands of his profession and his conscience and to balance his Arthurian fantasies of heroism and the demands of the real world. Parker’s novels are noted for their humor and polish, with literary allusions from the well-read Spenser sown throughout the series. Not so incidentally, Spenser is the character to whom critics constantly compare Snow.

James Lee Burke has often been anointed the virtual poet laureate of Southern Louisiana. William Faulkner’s name is invoked when his Dave Robicheaux novels are praised. And finally let us pay homage to P.D. James’ pensive detective protagonist, Adam Dalgliesh. He is a published poet who rises from the rank of chief detective inspector to commander at Scotland Yard. As I recall, James provides one example of his writing, which is not without merit. Dalgliesh is a loner sleuth whose poetic bent is constantly at war with the realities of his chosen profession. He is one of the most compelling detectives in modern fiction.

This is not to short change Snow, who is as mesmerizing in his own way as any of the aforementioned gumshoes. As Lives Laid Away opens, a woman dressed as Queen Marie Antoinette jumps off the Ambassador Bridge. When her body is dredged from the river, she turns out to be a young Hispanic who is drugged to the eyeballs and has been repeatedly sexually abused. The Detroit Police Department wants the case closed fast: “Get rid of a problem without straight-up first degree…. Who cares about some freak chick that got too high and topped herself.”

Actually, Dr. James Robert “Bobby” Falconi of the Wayne County Coroner’s office cares and confides to his buddy August Snow that he thinks there’s more to this than meets the eye:

“Sometimes—you see a body and you want to know their story. This may sound stupid—but sometimes I can—feel—these people—this girl—wanting me to tell their story.” …He reached into his suit coat pocket and pulled out a sheet of paper folded into quarters…the girl on a slab, pristine white sheet covering her from the chest down….”Somebody’s daughter. Jesus.”

“What do you want me to do, Bobby?” I said.

“Maybe show it around your neighborhood…. Maybe somebody knows her in Mexicantown…. Somebody’s got to be looking for her, right?”

“I’ll ask around,” I said. “No promises.”

“I’m too old for promises,” Bobby said.

Snow starts with his godparents Elena and Tomás Gutierrez. Actually with Elena, who is a prominent advocate for undocumented immigrants:

Elena was the hub of the entire Mexicantown community. Depending on who needed her, she was an altar. A confessional, a bullhorn or a sledgehammer, fighting for the rights of the people in our neighborhood. She knew everyone.

Elena recognizes the girl immediately as a local Hispanic teenager:

“Her name was Isadora Rosalita del Torres. Nineteen. Undocumented,” Elena finally said. “…Lived a hard life in Mexico City. Saved enough for a coyote to get her across the border….She’s a—was a smart girl. Good…girl.”

Elena was trembling…. ”I got Isadora—Izzy—a job in a restaurant in Ann Arbor,” Elena continued….”Next thing I know—the restaurant’s been raided and—she’s gone. Scooped up. Hard enough to track somebody with family here. Izzy—she had nobody.”

Snow learns that Izzy was the victim of a vicious human trafficking ring that undoubtedly involves corrupt immigration agents. Of course, Izzy’s story is one the authorities want to suppress. Then the remains of a second Hispanic girl surfaces, branded seven times with a swastika and steeped in the acrid chemical stew of the River Rouge near Zug Island rendering her unrecognizable. Snow and Tomás go into high gear.

Guns held high, they take a madcap ride across Detroit from its neo-Nazi biker niches to its hip-hop recording studios, its stylish social clubs to its decaying night clubs, Snow risking his life to protect the community he loves.

Lives Laid Away is a giddy, heart-stopping read whose distinctive, vibrant characters come at you full throttle, no holds barred. It lays bare a city that, as the author says, “is vibrant, colorful, and cutting edge...a city where diversity is real and strong, flourishing and bearing fruit.”

A toast to Stephen Mack Jones, one of the coolest crime writers on the current scene.

—Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.