Reading possesses its own peculiar joys. There are titles that put a hook in your nose and drag you from flyleaf to afterword in a single sitting. Others feature characters so well-realized you half expect to bump into them at the grocery store. And some build settings with such verisimilitude that the very air in the room seems to change when you crack the cover. But there’s one joy that’s particularly rare and fine -- the joy of watching an author excel. That’s the delight you’ll find in Adrian McKinty’s Fifty Grand.
Cuban detective Mercado is used to busting child murderers, trying to stay of the right side of interdepartmental politics and snapping up household essentials on the black market. But six months ago, a hit-and-run driver in Fairview, Colorado, killed her father, throwing him down an embankment and leaving him to drown in his own blood from a rib-punctured lung. Since Cuba viewed her old man as a traitor for escaping the island, and America thought him an illegal immigrant because he went under an alias, his death gets ignored by both nations. Not by Mercado, though. She’s about to try something completely out of her league -- fly to the mainland on a seven-day visa under the pretense of investigating a criminology program in Mexico and then skip over the border into the U.S. to find her father’s killer. A desperate plan, but not even she knows that the shadow economy in which she’ll soon find herself is as grim as Castro’s gulags.
In his first thriller, Dead I Well May Be, McKinty’s favored narrative mode was stream-of-consciousness. It was rich, but overgrown and difficult. Fifty Grand finds him pruning away the excess, and the novel is better for it. Plain first-person point of view takes center stage most of the time, only surrendering to the old twisty style during moments of introspection or violence. And what violence it is. Some authors treat gunplay and fisticuffs as fun interludes, making human suffering into a light thing meant for enjoyment. Not McKinty, who treats them as they are -- awful. His confrontations come sharp and painful as a knife to the gut, and Mercado’s final battle is so visceral it feels downright apocalyptic. The only place where the book stumbles is edging a bit too close to moral equivalence in comparing the United States’ wrongs with those of Cuba. Yet even here, McKinty remains deft enough to remind those of us who love God, guns and apple pie of an ancient truth: The human heart is desperately wicked no matter the country in which it resides.
(Picture: CC 2008 by by Steve Wampler)