It doesn’t mean much to me when a writer signs a deal with a major publisher. The publisher typically has dreams of a best-seller and I don’t generally care for best sellers. I’m happy for the writer, as I’m in favor of anything that gets a writer paid and doesn’t involve potential prison time. I’m just not likely to read the book.
Hold that thought.
I first became aware of David Swinson at Bouchercon in Long Beach, where I saw him on a panel and made a note that this guy has more on the ball than most. I hadn’t got around to reading his first book, A Detailed Man, by the time I got to Raleigh last year, where I saw him on another panel just as educational and thought-provoking, but did score an advanced reader’s copy of The Second Girl. The big publishers—in this case Mulholland—don’t fool around. They held events at Bouchercon a full eight months before the book was to drop. They expected big things.
Much as it pains me to agree with a large publisher, they were right to think so. The Second Girl is a hell of a book.
Frank Marr is a former Washington DC cop with a problem. Several, actually, but the one that keeps him jumping in his new job as private investigator is his cocaine habit. PI work doesn’t pay enough to keep Frank in the quantity and quality of drugs to which he’d like to become accustomed so he rips off drug dealers to make up the difference. It’s on one of these covert raids he discovers a teen-aged girl chained in a bathroom. Marr’s a drug abuser and kind of an asshole, but he’s not a bad person. He rescues the girl while concocting a story about how he came across her that won’t incriminate him.
Bad luck for Frank: now he’s a hero. Another family with a missing daughter hears the story and begs him to help them. He doesn’t want to but can’t help himself and agrees. Actually, he can’t help himself from helping himself, as what he has to do to get the second girl back draws on all his expertise—legitimate and otherwise—and shows him in concrete ways where his life has gone off the rails.
Swinson has an economical style that tells Marr’s story without apology or self-justification. He’s the kind of anti-hero that could require a book of its own to do justice. A good guy with many bad habits and tendencies, he wavers and often does as much as his conscience demands, only to find his conscience has been only temporarily satisfied and wants more. The internal and external struggles compete without a hint of melodrama.
I’m also not much for awards discussions, but if The Second Girl doesn’t receive substantial notice at awards time next year, it’s prima facie evidence the various bodies are even more clueless than I suspected. This is a substantial and relevant book that is still entertaining, and David Swinson is a writer to whom we should all pay much attention in the coming years.