This fast-paced, hardcore mystery begins with two incidents, one in Arizona and the other on the mean streets of Victory, Missouri. In the first, a desperate man commits suicide immediately after an interview with Detective Jules Bettinger in Arizona. In the second, a local drug addicts is confronted by four crusty detectives in Victory, a situation that results in bloodshed and is marked by the dead carcasses of the pigeons that regularly fall from the Missouri skies in this rust-belt city, leaving Victory littered with decomposing birds. Unfortunately for Bettinger, the suicide’s family has political connections, the detective summarily sent to Victory for assignment on that city’s police force. Much like the old frontier towns of the Wild West, Victory is mired in decay, with a collapsing social system and endemic crime. The police department is scorned by citizens, either for corruption or their inability to stem the flow of violent crime.
Bettinger, whose skin is blacker than most have seen in either Arizona or Missouri, is a fifty-year-old career man with eighteen years on the job and a wife and two children, whom he moves ninety minutes away from the dangers of Victory. With their Arizona home yet to sell, the family’s meager finances leave much to be desired. Bettinger arrives to the first day on his new assignment in a cheap yellow compact car, an anomaly among the newer vehicles driven by his colleagues. There has been some quid pro quo between the department and a local criminal entrepreneur, Sebastian Ramirez, the arrangement coming to a violent end in the bird-littered alley where the four detectives close in on a drug addict-bum. Ramirez is currently in ICU with serious injuries; Bettinger’s new partner still sports the bandages from his involvement in the incident—and has been busted down to Corporal.
Although he is welcomed by Inspector Zwolinski, a burly, homely man who boxes each day before work, Bettinger holds back from his surly partner, Dominic Williams, and three others. His early rounds through the city with Williams are daunting. Victory is a vast wasteland of urban blight, decaying and abandoned buildings and torn-up streets. Bettinger is shocked by the scenes of devastation around him and the biting cold that tears at him, profoundly grateful that his wife and children are far removed from Victory.
Without warning, a police patrol is singled out and murdered in cold blood, the first ambush followed by others in quick succession. There is clearly a vendetta against the Victory PD, and the first person on Bettinger’s list is Ramirez, who is suddenly nowhere to be found. The tension escalates as the police realize that no one is safe from the assassins stalking Victory in search of victims. Unraveling the events behind the crisis, Bettinger is forced to work with men he doesn’t trust but comes to understand, given the unremitting threat of the job on the streets of the city. He searches for Ramirez in a nightmarish dystopian landscape, each part of the city more disturbing than the last. It becomes a harrowing cat-and-mouse game that Bettinger learns, to his horror, may even reach to the sanctity of his home.
Unremittingly violent and brutally descriptive, the novel is both riveting and horrifying, a detective from the Arizona desert catapulted to the depths of a frozen hell from which neither he nor his family will escape unscathed.
(A caveat: as well-written as is the plot, the author has a penchant for clumsy prose, so frequent as to become irritating, as detectives “dial the wheel” to the right or left to turn a car’s direction; the act of note-taking as “he distributed graphite between two lines”; or a bartender described as “the creature in the apron faced his bottles and extended appendages”. A strong plot serves to ameliorate these distractions, but it would be nice if Zahler could control his exuberance for such phrases.)