As you’ve probably gathered from this blog, I read a lot. But I pick my reading material in kind of a haphazard way, so I can’t claim to be up on the latest trends or have comprehensive knowledge of any particular genre.
So maybe this isn’t as rare as I think. But here’s the deal. With his debut novel, Silent City, Alex Segura has written a crime thriller set in Miami populated by … get this … actual human beings.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of what Dave Barry has called the “bunch of nuts in South Florida genre” of crime fiction. Love Tim Dorsey. Carl Hiaasen is like a god to me. (Jeff Lindsay’s “Dexter” is a bit more problematic. And I stopped following the TV series, which I hear jumped the shark big-time after I wrote this post. *Sigh*)
Much of the fun of the aforementioned writers is their over-the-top style and zany characters. I also admire the way that Hiaasen manages to get in touches that humanize even the most eccentric of his characters, such as the hirsute thug “Tool” in “Skinny Dip.”
That being said, you can overwork even the most appealing story elements, as I wrote about here. I love it when I’m reading a detective story published in the 1940s, and a dame who looks like trouble walks into a private dick’s office. I cringe when the same thing happens in a book published in 2013. Sometimes there’s a fine line between paying homage to a classic convention, and kicking it to death in the alley out back.
Segura’s book has many of the elements of a vintage hard-boiled detective novel. A missing woman. A mysterious killer. A hard-drinking hero with one last shot at redemption, and a cast of characters as apt to drop false leads as they are to provide clues.
And Miami’s no safer than it is in the conventional crime thriller set there. It’s still the Wild West on crank, full of drug runners, killers-for-hire and corrupt cops. This is no cozy mystery.
But “Silent City” feels refreshing in large part because the characters ring true. They’re motivated by recognizable emotions, and behave in believable ways when thrust into desperate situations. The story is set around a newspaper. And as a former longtime newspaper reporter myself, I can verify that Segura nailed the different personality types who haunt newsrooms.
One of those is the hero of the book, sports editor Pete Fernandez.
Pete’s on a downward spiral. He’s still licking his wounds from a broken relationship, mourning the recent death of his homicide detective father, and barely managing to choke back his anger at the smarmy corporate types gathering at his newspaper like hyenas to feast on newspaper journalism’s corpse.
He’s drinking heavily, sabotaging what remains of his career and pissing off his few remaining friends.
Then a dodgy columnist from his paper approaches him with an unusual request. He wants Pete to look into the disappearance of his daughter — an investigative reporter who was working on a piece about a mysterious underworld assassin known only as “Silent Death.”
Dangerous complication arise, as they will in this type of story. Nobody’s giving Pete a lot of credit. But he learned a trick or two from his father, and may have more grit and resources at his disposal than either friend or enemy suspects.
In the best noir fashion, the ensuing mystery dredges up some ghosts from Pete’s past. And it has the requisite double-crosses, edgy characters and twists.
I guess really, that’s the challenge for any writer of genre fiction. Hitting the beats that make fans love the genre in the first place, without hitting them so predictably that they’re drained of all vitality. Segura manages that balance admirably.
And he ends the story with a promise of more to come. That’s good news for fans of quality crime fiction.