Fresh Meat: Penance by Dan O’Shea

Penance by Dan O’Shea is a debut novel set in Chicago about political corruption, police detectives, and scores that must be settled (available April 30, 2013).

On its face, Penance by Dan O’Shea is the story of Chicago Police Detective John Lynch and his hunt for the Confessional Killer—a madman with a sniper rifle who’s been picking off penitent churchgoers.

But to classify Penance as a mere police procedural would be to do it a serious injustice. Because, you see, like all good crime fiction, this book is about so much more than its back cover copy might suggest. 

For starters, O’Shea’s debut is a revenge tale:

“I’ve been living with the fact that my father was murdered for most of my life, but always thought the guys who did it went down at the same time. Just found out they didn’t. Worse than that, just found out they set him up. Risky or not, I’m in.”

It’s also a crash course in Chicago politics:

Hastings Clarke stood by the door watching Riley. Clarke hated Riley. Hated the big, round Irish head, the massive shoulders, the ill-fitting suit, the too-short tie on the slope of the unapologetic gut. He hated Riley as the venial representation of everything wrong with the city. When Clarke came west to join the Hurley dynasty, he found not corruption as a rash overlying the sound skeleton of government but a body politic completely rotted through. Urbs in Horto, City in a Garden, was Chicago’s official motto. But Qua Mei? was its operating principle. Where’s mine?

And a rumination on the true nature of power, to boot:

Wang sat back, nodding. “Finally, we come to the crux of the matter. You have never understood, young Lynch. You still don’t.”

“So enlighten me.”

“Do you really think that the Hurleys of the world matter? Or the Clarkes?”

“Do I think that one of the most powerful political families in the country matters? Do I think that the President of the United States matters? I’m leading toward yes.”

“Power matters, young Lynch. And it has a public and a private face. These men are merely its skin—skin that changes with each election or the fall of each dynasty. The Roosevelts, the Kennedys, all so many shed skins.”

“And you’re the snake?”

Wang snorted a short laugh. “Always these scandals. The private face of power decides, young Lynch—decides direction, decides policy, decides strategy. But there must be a public face to translate that vision into useful social action— into law, into commerce, into treatises. And so we find the public faces, and we cultivate them, and we allow them their vainglorious belief in the infinity of their own power. But the public face is always flesh, and the ways of the flesh are always its downfall. And so its face is changed. And so the public face may be changing again. The private face of power does not care and does not involve itself. But the public face cares greatly. The greater the threat, the harder the public face will fight. Do not misunderstand, Lynch. The power of the public face is no threat to the private face—it is venal, banal, grubbing power—but it is still very dangerous.”

Perhaps most strikingly, though, Penance is a heartbreaking account of love and loss, and the havoc that grief can wreak on an unstable mind:

Ishmael Leviticus Fisher lay awake in the anonymous hotel on the frontage road off I-57. He needed to sleep, but the moment kept coming back to him. His wife, the quick smile and short wave out the driver’s window of the Blazer as it crunched through the yellowed leaves, down past the short stone wall, past the chestnut tree, angling to the right as it backed into the street.

Andy’s face in the back window, the delicate skin around the blue eyes crinkled, that smile that seemed to split his head like a melon full of teeth. Amanda in the car seat past him, just a year old, just a hint of Amanda through the reflection of the white house and the black shutters and the fragile blue of the autumn sky.

Then the white-yellow flash of Semtex, like diamond lava, and a sound like all the bones in the world snapping at once, the driver’s side of the Blazer pitching up, part of the bottom showing, and then the gas tank explosion, a richer, redder fire with a sound like a bass drum stretched with his own flesh and beaten with his own heart.

Picking himself up and running to the burning hulk, half, half, half his son strewn into the street, his head now truly split, brains, not teeth, smiling out. And his wife, thrown out onto the lawn, blood sheeting down her face and a flap of her scalp hanging across one eye, a ragged triangle of gray plastic jutting from her abdomen, her right leg gone almost to the hip, the scarlet, arterial blood arcing out in desperate spurts. Her clawing at the plastic as he reached her, clawing at the invasion into her already crowded womb. And her remaining eye meeting his eyes just once, and her saying “the baby,” and her hands falling away from her stomach as that one good eye rolled back and the blood from her leg slowed, no longer propelled by a beating heart.

The author, Dan O’Shea, calls Penance a “multi-generational tale of what happens when family secrets and dirty politics are blown into the light of day by a madman with a gun, all set against Chicago’s history and culture of corruption.” That’s certainly an accurate—and eloquent—description, but it offers only the subtlest of hints at the depth that lies within; when you crack the cover of this novel, you’ll discover there’s a whole lot more there, lurking just below the surface. Buy yourself a copy of Penance, and prepare to dive in.


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Katrina Niidas Holm loves mysteries. She lives in Maine with her husband, fabulously talented pulp writer Chris F. Holm, and a noisy, noisy cat. She writes reviews for Crimespree Magazine and The Maine Suspect, and you can find her on Twitter.

Read all Katrina Niidas Holm’s posts for Criminal Element.


  1. Emlyn

    Some great quotes there from a great book!

  2. Steve Weddle

    feels like i’ve started reading this book already
    now i have to wait until april 30 to finish

  3. georgiann

    Interesting read i grew up in Chicago would love to win a copy

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