Warning: some plot spoilers are included, though I’m not purposely giving away the plot’s twists and turns.
This is an outstanding example of modern noir, though, oddly, it’s also a time travel novel. Our protagonist Mickey Wade is a laid-off journalist living in Philadelphia – an old, corrupt, seedy city I‘ve always enjoyed visiting – whose personal situation is rapidly heading from bad to worse. He’s got no job, no real career prospects, no money, and he’s forced to move into his hospitalized grandfather’s ratty old walk-up. The book begins with this dark backdrop as we watch the protagonist descend further into the kind of personal hell that’s become all too common in these troubled financial times. Then he discovers that some pills in his grandfather’s medicine cabinet allow him to travel back to the same location in 1972, the year of his birth. That’s when things really start getting weird. The people he encounters there are all intimately tied in with his father’s murder, which he attempts to solve after learning that the version of the story he had heard isn’t exactly what happened. The more he discovers about the past, the messier things get. As with most time travel thrillers, there are a few dangling plot holes that can’t quite be resolved, but generally the treatment of paradox and causation are handled intelligently.
This is a fast-paced, fun read, despite its inherently dark subject matter, and I had a hard time putting it down. Characterization is smooth and the dialogue flows effortlessly. The sense of place is palpable as we watch what had been a fairly prosperous lower-middle-class Philly neighborhood in 1972 slowly transform into a dangerous rathole in 2010. Swierczynski clearly knows his craft as a writer. Evocative full-page illustrations every few chapters add to the experience.
Highly recommended for those who enjoy noir with a science fiction bent. (Not to worry, even if you have a marked allergy to science fiction as I know many crime fiction readers do, I don’t think you’ll object too much here.) This was the first of Duane Swierczynski’s books I’ve read, but it certainly won’t be the last.
Review copyright 2010 J. Andrew Byers