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Saturday, August 12, 2017

August Snow by Stephen Mack Jones

Soho Crime, 320 pages, $25.95

August Snow is the hero’s name. He grew up in “Mexicantown” in Detroit, the son of a cop and an artistic mother. They were loving parents who instilled principles of decency and honesty in their son. When he graduated from the police academy, it was a proud moment. Big cities being what they are, August soon found that there was police corruption. Big time. Also involving the mayor and other political peons. August helped to publicly heave-ho a lot of them, but he was persona non grata for “ratting” out his fellow officers. The force in blue brooks no excuses, even if the excuse is a good one. The event ended with August’s dismissal from the force, a successful lawsuit by him against the city, and a check for $16 million.

Now after a year of wandering around the world, mostly drinking himself silly, August has returned to Detroit. More specifically, now that his parents are dead, he has returned to the very house in which he was raised. At a loss for what direction to take, he begins with renovating his house and another few on the block. That leads to meeting some of his eccentric neighbors. They soon become more family than nodding acquaintances, and these relationships provide the hearty backbone to Stephen Mack Jones’ debut novel.

One of the last big cases Snow worked as a cop on was the murder-suicide of financial heiress Eleanor Paget’s husband and his sixteen-year-old “mistress.” More queenly than businesslike, Eleanor imperiously summons August to her well-guarded mansion when she discovers he has returned to town. She has a mission for him. “Something” is wrong with her investment institution. Nah, says August. Not my bailiwick or interest. And Eleanor is a bitch. He notes the disdainful way Eleanor treats Rose Mayfield, a long-time friend and assistant at her business.

Does heritage have anything to do with the skewed relationships in the book? Does gender? August is Mexican (mother) and African-American (father). Eleanor is white. Rose Mayfield is black. Other main characters spread themselves along the spectrum. Is Eleanor a bitch because that’s the way she rolls, or is she deeply prejudiced? Does her motivation have anything to do with why she was murdered?

Author Jones puts depth and conscience into his work. August is trying to reinvigorate his little part of Detroit. He is proud of his Mexican heritage (especially the food). Even though he is no longer a police detective, he is morally bound to defend the defenseless. Will solving Eleanor’s death give him freedom from his Catholic guilt at having refused her request for help? All signs point to Eleanor’s death being a suicide, but there is a soupçon of doubt, enough to push August to ask a series of questions bound to aggravate some touchy people.

There is a lot of bang-bang violence and also other terrible harm befalls many. But there is a thoughtfulness about what a community should do for themselves if they don’t want to sell their souls or become victims of “progress.” August is joined by one of Eleanor’s former guards, a street dealer who had the misfortune to be selling on August’s street, and an old friend who also worked for Eleanor. August is not dead to everyone on the force. There are a few still willing to help a little, including James Falconi, the medical examiner, and Captain Ray Danbury, an old crony. The cast is large but the by-play is interesting.

Jones talks food well enough to make your mouth water: a department store’s “Maurice salad and garlic mashed potatoes with meatloaf,” “Turkey Reuben ‘Extraordinaire’ with buffalo-seasoned sweet potato fries and a side order of cole slaw complete with chopped walnuts and McIntosh apples,” and so on and so on. Jones peppers his tough story with hometown asides, and that flavors his word salad splendidly.

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