Canary by Duane Swierczynski follows Sarie Holland, a freshman honors student caught up as a confidential informant, who is tasked with trying to help take down a drug ring, while keeping on top of her studies.
When I opened Canary, Duane Swierczynski’s complex Edgar-nominated thriller, I had no idea what to expect. Since I had not even glanced at the jacket copy beforehand, I was completely amused to discover that I had landed squarely at “St. Jude’s,” a college in North Philly remarkably similar to the one Swierczynski and I attended together over twenty-five years ago.
From the outset, I was immediately drawn into the plight of Sarie Holland, a freshman honors student who went from intellectualizing the best strategies to avoid getting high and drunk at a party to becoming an unwitting accomplice on a drug buy to being recruited as a confidential informant for the police—all within the space of a few hours.
My to-do list:
- Get Chuckie talking business
- Buy Oxys
- Buy a gun
- Prepare for my 8:30 philosophy final
But I found myself giggling over Sarie’s earnest attempts to apply her book smarts to those pesky problems of the criminal underworld and her general impatience with the fact that these problems—you know, like facing arrest, finding drug dealers, tracking down said drug dealers, being tracked by other drug dealers—were all encroaching on her study time.
After all, what other newly minted confidential informant would think to Google the police department in order to better understand where her handler placed in the organizational hierarchy? Or research the word “snitch” in order to find a more palatable synonym (“Canary”)? Or refuse to meet her handler because she still had a paper on Goethe to write for honors English? I found myself admiring Sarie for her toughness and her ingenuity (as well as her unflappable commitment to good grades):
If I can crank out some bullshit paper on the French Revolution in eight hours, I can definitely find a drug dealer in Philadelphia.
Talk about determination!
But like its namesake, Canary is smart and complex and full of competing tensions; a terrific—and sometimes twisted—blend of grit and levity, darkness and humanity.
This was in due in no small part to Swierczynski’s dark, smoky portrayal of Philadelphia, with its “[a]bandoned fields of industrial muck and a few struggling refineries. Bursts of fire in the distance. Smoke. Weedy swamps and dump sites.” And, anyone who has ever driven from the Philadelphia airport into Center City will surely snicker at this line:
Must be a shock to tourists when they land and hail a cab to the City of Brotherly Love and feel like they’re pulling into the set of Blade Runner.
Yeah, that seems about right.
And the other details are spot on too: From Yeungling in Old City to Tastycakes at the Wa-Wa, I could visualize every street, every turn of the El, and every drug den in the Badlands. Well, okay, I’ve never been to a drug den in the Badlands, so I took his word on the accuracy there.
Similarly, when narcotics officer Wildey—another compelling character—slips on something gross, the object turns out to be a “burst-open Pat’s cheesesteak, grease and cheese and onions smeared over the blacktop like it had committed suicide from the roof of a nearby row house.”
These are the kinds of gritty details that make Canary, well, sing.
I was also fascinated by the random tidbits about Philadelphia that Swierczynski incorporated with glee. I mean, I lived in the city for 21 years, and I never knew some of these things. Most notably, I was intrigued by the reference to the rat receiving station at Race Street Pier—apparently, this was rat-catching the Philly way (“two cents per dead rat, five cents for live ones”)—built in 1914 to stop disease from spreading from the incoming ships to land.
Certainly, good law-abiding citizen that I am, I also never knew that there’s an area under Penn’s Landing where bodies are regularly dumped. Or, wink-wink, maybe that’s all part of Swierczynski’s prodigious imagination—or maybe not. It seemed authentic and plausible to me, at least.
However, beneath the persistent darkness and beyond the criminal conspiracies, Canary reveals a lot of heart—the pain of true humanity, exhibited in the poignant relationships between Sarie and her father (who, delightful irony of ironies, is a drug counselor), as well as between Sarie and her precocious brother Marty, and even between Sarie and her handler. These relationships—this need to connect—really help elevate the story, adding nuance and depth to the characters and their motivations.
A well-paced book, Canary moves briskly, but not at a break-neck speed. Characters have time to reflect and interact with one another, but they don’t get bogged down by the weight of the events around them. To this end, I was particularly impressed by Swierczynski’s ability to switch among multiple narrators with ease, without ever losing me as a reader or messing up the overall narrative arc.
Overall, Canary is surprising in all the best ways—great plot twists, nuanced and well-developed characters, unexpected locations, colorful language, and dramatic world-building. All of these aspects combine to make a unique and compelling story.
And since Sarie’s history professor—coincidentally named Professor Calkins—is known to be a “friendly but hard-grader,” I thought it only appropriate that I end by giving Canary a grade of B+.
No, I’m kidding! That was before revision. No honors hyperventilating necessary. I meant to say an A.
And, Duane, an A+ if you can promise a sequel! More Sarie, please.
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Susanna Calkins became fascinated with seventeenth-century England while pursuing her doctorate in British history and uses her fiction to explore this chaotic period. Originally from Philadelphia, Calkins now lives outside of Chicago with her husband and two sons. The Masque of a Murderer is her third novel.