Ken Mercer: Slow Fire

This is a knockout debut. It’s about ex LAPD narcotics detective Will Magowan, who has hit bottom and who has taken a job in tiny Haydenville, California, as their new police chief. The mayor, a little desperate, has reached out to Will as a kind of last resort because of a pervasive methamphetamine problem in town. The source can’t be found, and other things are happening that are seemingly unrelated—this is a mystery, however, so of course every thread ties together.

Really good writers can often get away with some over the top stuff merely because of the force of their narrative and their ability to create wonderful characters. I think if they were movie stars, this might be called “charisma.” Mercer seems to have this writing “charisma”. His character of Will is beautifully drawn with a heartbreaking backstory that Mercer teases out throughout the course of the novel (I’d advise you not to read the dust jacket). This book is absolutely as noir as it gets, except that you believe in Will himself. What’s wrong is everything else; no can be trusted, or be expected to stand up, or to be who they say they are—and if they do any of those things, it doesn’t end well for them.

Assisting Will is a very green rookie, Thomas, who Will quickly nicknames simply “T.” Thomas has some good instincts, and after a rough start, he begins to think he can learn from Will. It’s a good and classic partnership—jaded older guy and green newbie. Mercer’s writing manages to make it fresh, as he also manages to make the scenes with Will’s estranged wife fresh. They have some baggage between them but then again, the baggage is pretty heavy stuff. It’s on the backburner narrative wise as Will gets caught up in the meth problem that’s pervading the town.

How is the meth issue tied to the accidental death of an eco minded kayaker, or to the disappearance of many of the town’s dogs? Will is starting to figure it out when the mayor more or less turns on him—Will’s pretty convinced the problem stems from one of Haydenville’s more prominent citizens, writer Frank Carver, a well known but long ago published author who has come back to Haydenville with his sons and who is the town’s claim to fame. Will has only a short deadline to prove his theories are correct.

One of the things I really liked about this book was that it could have gone the way of a more literary type thriller—Mercer certainly has the chops to go that way—but by full heartedly embracing the genre, he soars into the stratosphere with his story, which is full of classic noir elements and mystery tropes (ex-wife, powerful bad guy, newbie detective, doubtful city official). He soars by making Will so indelible, and through the sheer force of his storytelling. I cannot wait for another book about Will Magowan.