Tucker’s ingenious novel begins with the murder of a white girl in a downscale, predominantly black neighborhood in Washington, DC. Events unfold in a brilliant juxtaposition of political power, grim poverty and the narratives with which we shield ourselves from the painful truths of a disparate society. His protagonist, a journalist, strides through the halls of power and the dangerous streets of a city where crime is endemic with a comfort born of experience in a novel filled with subtly-wrought characters and topical issues, race, justice, police, the media, a search for truth and the politics of expedience. In Sully Carter, Tucker captures the gritty investigative journalism of the late 1990s, Republicans about to seize power, justices of the Supreme Court holding the reins of the future.
No stranger to politics or war, Sully is a veteran of Bosnia with the scars to prove it, both physical and emotional. He carries the baggage of a dead lover with him even as he attempts to forge a new relationship with a savvy bartender unwilling to share her affections with a ghost. An old-school newspaperman, Sully hides the need to fuel his days with alcohol, his bosses less tolerant of such antics these days but still willing to trust the instincts of a journalist who takes a circuitous route in writing about a shocking murder case.
Sarah Reese, the fifteen-year-old daughter of a prominent judge (and potential future nominee for the Supreme Court) is found in a dumpster in an alley behind a neighborhood store with her throat slashed. While police arrest three young black men seen at the store when Sarah was there, the reaction is predictable: neighborhood outrage at the usual assumptions and a narrative quickly adopted by law enforcement to make sense of the crime. Using his own sources, from Justice Department insider Eva Harris to Sly Hastings, a neighborhood warlord who doesn’t want an alphabet soup of law enforcement upsetting the rhythms of his turf, Sully conducts his own investigation. Eventually he discovers a series of missing young women within a close radius of Sarah Reese’s murder—only these women are black, Hispanic or variations thereof, lower priorities in an area where drugs and prostitution are common.
Stalling bosses who either want to assign him to the prosecution of the young black suspects or write fill-in stories for local color, Sully gathers information, dodging and weaving, begging for time to pursue the real killer and what may be a shocking incident of dereliction of duty by a prominent political player. A deeply sympathetic character, the world-weary journalist with roots in New Orleans can’t outrun his past or quite catch up to a serpentine plot that reaches from the elegant offices of the murdered girl’s father, Judge David Reese, with whom he has a history, to a dour assembly of the newspaper’s editorial board, who will be liable for anything Carter writes. A dilapidated row house yields the body of one of the women from Sully’s growing list of missing girls, proof that there are far more heinous things afoot besides the murder of Sarah Reese.
Neely Tucker vigorously plucks the strings of adversity, the discrepancies of the powerful and the powerless, the result a disharmonious twang that vibrates through the streets of an embattled district not far from the White House in a novel as taut and revelatory as the screaming headlines of a political scandal. His personal experience and compassion for his characters prove valuable tools in the framing of a contemporary portrayal of the human condition circa 1999. Bravo.