Delacorte Press/ Bantam Dell
Any place named 'Flats" is likely to be bad; the blue chip areas
are "heights" or 'havens". If you're in the flats, you're probably in
some burned out urban wasteland, probably dominated by pimps,
hookers, gangs, drug dealers and junkies, where a white face stands
out and spells trouble. Mission Flats, an imaginary section of
Boston, is no exception. 'Mission Flats', the debut novel by William
Landay, is. Landay takes all the pieces of the typical urban suspense
jigsaw and recombines them into an original and satisfying new piece
with exceptional characters and layer upon layer of irony.
'Mission Flats' opens with the rape and shooting of a Boston cop some twenty years in the past, followed shortly by the suicide of the perpetrator of that crime, who opted to kill himself rather than wait for the Boston PD to do it to him. Ten years later, another Boston cop is shot in the face while leading a raid on the "Red Door", a well-known Mission Flats drug stashpad. That's just the prologue, and as any mystery reader knows, both these crimes will ultimately weave back into the story that follows.
That story begins in Versailles, Maine (pronounced Ver Sales), a Podunk town frequented by tourists in the summer and fall, and a few hundred "locals" the rest of the year. Ben Truman has abandoned his graduate studies in history to move back to Versailles to care for his mother who is dying of Alzheimer's and has taken the job of Chief of Police formerly held by his father. On a routine check, Truman discovers the body of a Boston Deputy District Attorney in an abandoned lakeside cabin. The killing bears the signature of the Mission Posse, a gang of drug dealers from Mission Flats. Determined to track down the killer, Truman sets out for Boston.
Truman is an untrained and unsophisticated small-town cop, familiar with DUIs and speeders, not big-city criminals. Nicknamed "Opie" by one of the Boston DAs, he is adopted by a retired cop named John Kelly and Mission Flats hot-shot cop Gittens. Together, they educate him in the ways of inner city policing, big-city politics, and what passes for justice in contemporary times. Truman may be backwoods, but he's not backwards; he's a quick study and an intelligent observer, alternately a naive rube or a reluctant tough cop. Or so it seems.
Ironically, while Truman the historian was passionate about uncovering and understanding the details of the past, he is an untrustworthy narrator of his own story. He omits significant segments of the narrative, whether by design or denial. An untrustworthy narrator is a tricky business for a writer, particularly if the narrator's credibility is the peg upon which the plot twist rests. He must appear to be believable, or the twist packs no surprise. But he can't be infallibly credible, or the surprise doesn't ring true. There must be but a whisper of doubt, a circumstance, a comment, an action or reaction that initially holds weight but with thought, or with new revelation, doesn't quite gel. Landay controls this trickiness masterfully, layering his story with whispers of doubt, followed by whollops of revelation, tightening the tension and building the suspense.
Landay is a keen observer and chronicler of people, their weaknesses and their motivations. His story is both a tale of the process of uncovering truth and pursuing justice and a paean to the shifting nature of that truth and the preeminence of moral ambiguity. He invests his characters with fully functional moral compasses, but sets them all to "situational". Working with layered contradiction and reflective irony, Landay cloaks complicated ethical conflicts in everyday reality, makes immoral choices seem credible, and never fully answers the taxing questions he raises. That he can carry the reader through this moral minefield with mounting suspense and ultimate believability is exceptional in any novel, but particularly noteworthy in a first novel.
Landay's prose is fluid, familiar and easily read. His descriptions are vivid, often delivered with sage similes or worldly wit and his characterization is observant, insightful and sensitively conveyed. Sharper editing could have aided in sustaining a more even pace, avoiding the few repetitive segments and errant ramblings, but the narrative flows logically to a satisfying, if shocking, conclusion.
'Mission Flats' is a page-turner with substantive moral and psychological punch, a truly impressive debut novel. Able to create characters that resonate and a narrative with ironic twists and moral grit, Landay is an author to watch.