Thomas Kaufman: Drink the Tea

Winner of the prestigious St. Martin’s Private Eye Award contest, Kaufman joins other winners like Steve Hamilton and Michael Koryta with this novel. He’s a worthy addition to the roster. St. Martin’s has a definite niche in the marketplace – not as easy to define as the one occupied by Berkley’s dominance of the cozy sub genre – but an editorial bias is apparent in that they tend to publish books that embrace the quirky and original side of life, and their editors seem very fond of a well defined and unusual main character. Some of their heavy hitters – S.J. Rozan, Steve Hamilton, Julia Spencer-Fleming – all share this quality, but it percolates through to every Minotaur author in one way or another. And the defining quality of this debut novel is certainly the fascinating, troubled, and yes, quirky main character, Willis Gidney.

Kaufman may be challenged when it comes to titles and names of main characters, but he’s not challenged a bit when it comes to character development, narrative drive, or setting. This is a pretty traditional P.I. novel in some ways. Willis is asked by an old and revered friend to find his long lost daughter. There couldn’t be a more quotidian P.I. task, but as with any mystery novel, it’s all in what the author is able to do within those parameters that makes the book worth reading. What sets this book far and away above any kind of average P.I. outing is the main character. Willis’ childhood is revealed throughout the novel, as the narrative veers from past to present, never confusingly. He had grown up on the streets of D.C., was taken into the juvenile justice and eventually the foster care system, and it’s more than left his mark on his attitude, street smarts, and lack of normal emotional cues that anyone growing up within a more traditional family setting would take for granted. When he finally meets a woman – and she’s not the traditional babe in a tight dress you might find in a standard P.I. novel, but a computer savvy woman with dreads, a pierced nose and shapeless clothing – he’s still not sure how to take her friendliness or how he should act on his attraction to her. It makes him very endearing.

The story side of the book is your basic P.I. stuff, but Kaufman is really able to keep things moving and hold your interest as Willis lurches forward in his investigation, tying threads together, getting beat up and losing the inevitable car in the process. This isn’t so easy to do, and I’ve read plenty of P.I. novels where the investigator’s relentless questioning is just plain irritating and sometimes even boring. That’s not the case here at all, and it speaks to Kaufman’s gifts as a story teller. He’s a very smooth and capable one. But while the plot holds plenty of twists and dark surprises, what really gripped this reader, anyway, is Willis’ backstory. It’s one that will probably have you reaching for the next in the series, which luckily has just been published.