Soho Crime, 272 pages, $25.95
“Baby’s First Felony” is Alaskan author John Straley’s first Cecil Younger adventure since 2001. “The Music of What Happens,” the third in the series, won an MBTB star way back in the late 90s. Straley sets his series in Sitka, a place far removed from the picturesque town the tourist boats tramp all over. Cecil’s Sitka has problems: crime, drugs, angry people. But it has community and acceptance of eccentricity.
For instance, although they are the same age, Cecil has taken on responsibility for Todd, a man somewhere on the autistic spectrum. Cecil helps Todd navigate the shaky steps of survival. His wife, Jane Marie, and daughter, Blossom, also become part of Todd's family. Cecil has sympathy for Todd because he knows what it’s like to need help. Cecil is an alcoholic who has been dry for a long time. Now comes a case that will try his commitment to sobriety.
Drug kingpins and their minions are nasty people. People may have been murdered to protect the new local product. Cecil becomes involved in their world when a client mysteriously winds up with lots of money and her mean boyfriend winds up with lots of attitude. Although it is not obvious at first, Cecil learns that Blossom’s friend Thistle has gotten caught in the muddle.
Jane Marie has been along for some of Cecil’s adventures, but now it’s thirteen-year-old Blossom’s turn. She is rebellious, stubborn, and temperamental. Cecil is at a loss. When he becomes busy as an investigator with the public defender’s office, he shelves the problem of what to do with Blossom. Then one of his cases rams right into his personal life when Blossom is kidnapped. Will he meet the untenable demand the kidnapper makes in order to free his daughter? Cecil’s dilemma is heartbreaking.
Cecil calls on a lot of his office’s former clients, most of them homeless, a lot of them still alcoholics and addicts, for help. Their plans are ingenious and hare-brained. In the end, Cecil survives by the kindness of others. And that, in a nutshell, is what is glorious about Straley’s books. He calls on the kindness of others to reveal itself in his stories.
“Baby’s First Felony” is also the name of a handout Cecil’s office gives to first-time offenders seeking lawyerly advice. Straley reveals the rules contained in the handout throughout his book. Unfortunately, Cecil eventually finds himself in need of that advice. In fact, the narrative is Cecil’s allocution before his sentencing by a three-person judicial panel. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that Straley is using this gimmick until Cecil’s occasional “Your Honors” intrude. However, this gimmick serves to start the story off with an intriguing premise: Cecil has been found guilty of something and he is about to receive a sentence for it. That is where his mitigating statement comes in.
I’m glad Cecil is back. He has a unique, philosophical voice for a hard-bitten private eye.