Authors are often told to make the setting of their novel look like another character, and certainly the books that nail a place’s sounds, smells, looks, and feel add to the realism of a story. This debut crime novel, which involves two quasi-amateur detectives, takes place not in a place I have been, but where I live. Every gas station, restaurant and road are things I see several times a week. So the feeling of being able to visualize the place? This was its epitome.
Early one weekday morning, massively pregnant Andrea Stern steps into a gas station and gets out of her minibus with a small child desperate for a pee. With the urgency of the situation and the distraction of four crying children inside the car, she has overlooked the parked police cruiser and the two officers standing around unsafe. She also does not initially see the body of the station attendant scattered next to a pump, a shot to the head.
The female officer will not unlock the toilet for her because it is a crime scene, but Andrea, who trained as an FBI behavioral analyst 4.75 children ago, immediately sees that the two young patrols have already hopelessly compromised the place. The little girl was held at arm’s length, yielding to the inevitable and letting go. So much for preserving evidence. In the moments that await her daughter, Andrea looks around and learns more about the crime than the patrol officers have. She pushes back into the minivan with difficulty and drives away before the detectives arrive and have lots of questions.
Andrea is famous for solving a difficult serial murder case in New York. She gave up this job to her lasting regret of becoming a suburb. She loves her children but does not romanticize motherhood. Her skewed comments about the job are all honest parents can identify with. Later on the day of the murder, when Andrea was talking to several Indian women at the community pool, Andrea has an idea and is determined to investigate.
The disgraced journalist Kenneth Lee arrives at the scene to get the story – the first murder in West Windsor Township in decades. He once won a Pulitzer Prize, but made several serious misjudgments that have moved him down the journalistic food chain, and he is now scraping by writing for a local weekly newspaper. He gets a little gossip that drugs were involved in the murder (bought? Sold?), And tries to run with it, but is stoned by the police chief and rejected by the Indian family who own the gas station. The victim was their nephew. There’s more to it, he senses, if only he could figure it out. This story excites him who has done nothing for years and he is determined to investigate.
Andrea and Kenny meet on the steps of the police station. They knew each other at school, but lost touch. Although their motives and practices are vastly different, they have a common belief: the police are lying. But why? What are they saving? The two develop a hint of Andreas that leads them to real evidence of yet another brutal murder, one that city officials have spent decades covering up.
New author Fabian Nicieza is doing an admirable job of describing the social dynamics of this multicultural area of New Jersey. A few of the ancestors of the white residents cultivated for generations, their land now became housing development for commuters – mainly Indian and Chinese families. The original inhabitants have experienced a lot of social change and not everyone accepts it.
The story is told with great humor, sometimes at the expense of some group. In the acknowledgments, Nicieza thanks her multicultural reading group ‘for giving their thoughts on the cultural depictions contained in the book and their understanding that its intention was to be an equal chance.’ And he does an excellent job of portraying the kids who never cling.
Born in Buenos Aires, Nicieza grew up in New York City for a time before his family moved to New Jersey. For decades, he wrote and produced all the commercials for Marvel Comics, then edited them and wrote the off-hours X-Men series, among others. He co-created the character Deadpool, who has appeared in several Marvel movies. Since leaving Marvel, he has done comic book work for almost every major company. This is his first novel and you may find it extremely entertaining.
Another cartoonist who has turned to crime is Robbie Morrison. Try Edge of the Grave. Like Suburban Dicks is the setting where the writer grew up.
CFL Rating: 5 stars