Good storytelling is an art, and Kathleen George is a remarkable storyteller, manipulating an unusual cast of characters into a very believable tale set in Pittsburgh’s North Side. Teenagers skulk around abandoned buildings where junkies shoot up and dealers claim street corners, the usual vultures prey on the disaffected and fringe-dwellers cobble together meager existences.
Neighborhood crime is endemic, local law enforcement - both Narcotics and Homicide - pursuing predictably dead-end cases. But when a young man’s body is discovered with a needle still in his arm, Narcotics detectives hope they are close to a big break, a local dealer with important contacts.
Nick Banks, marginalized by a lifetime of poor decisions, reluctantly goes along with his boss’s instructions to locate and neutralize a neighborhood addict, only to find himself trapped in a boarded-up building, a hole in his leg, and a dead man slumped by his side. Somehow Nick is delivered from this nightmare into an equally bizarre place where four abandoned and orphaned children shelter him, strange young creatures committed to staying together while avoiding the notice of the authorities.
The local Homicide division charged with investigating the death of the hapless junkie is equally unpredictable, an eclectic group dedicated to their work but distracted by their personal lives. The head of the team has been diagnosed with cancer and is starting chemo treatments; detective Colleen Greer agonizes over her boss’s health but rigorously devotes herself to the investigation; and her coworker, John Potocki, is reeling from a sudden separation from his wife and an attraction to his partner.
Linking all together - the drug dealer, the junkies, the crime and the cops - is Nick Banks, who must trust the four children to protect him while he is incapacitated. It is these children who fill a tragic story with hope, their noble innocence and desire to stay together, the incredible love that binds them and allows Nick to imagine that his life might not be as hopeless as he has been convinced.
George weaves together a fascinating tapestry of the good, the bad and the ugly, a ruthless drug dealer and his violent lackeys, a helpless man with a shattered leg pursued by killers, a female detective half in love with her romanticized perception of Nick Banks and the Phillips children, whose shabby home is an oasis amid the chaos of a hostile city.
It takes a particular skill to make sense of this world, where brutality trumps compassion and expedience drives moral decisions, to make an unusual plot plausible, to draw readers into a world where hope has been obliterated by circumstance, only to believe once more in human nature at the end. This author’s insight is extraordinary, her appreciation of the complexities of her characters impressive, her thriller impossible to put down.