Silent City by Alex Segura is the first book in a new series about reporter-turned-P.I., Pete Fernandez (available October 29, 2013).
It takes a hard man to become a private investigator. Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe investigated crimes for the Los Angeles' D.A.'s Office before he went into business for himself. Robert B. Parker's Spenser was a soldier, a boxer, and a state trooper before he became a gumshoe. And before Robert Crais' Elvis Cole became the self-proclaimed “World's Greatest Detective,” he was an army ranger.
So, is a guy who makes his living editing the sports section of a Miami news paper cut out to be a private detective? In his debut novel, Silent City, former Archie Comics writer Alex Segura makes a fun and compelling argument for the idea of a journalist turned private detective.
Private Detectives are often rumpled, burned-out, disillusioned, and hung over figures, especially when we first meet them. Pete Fernandez, the protagonist of Silent City, isn't a private detective when the novel begins, but he certainly is disheveled and hung over:
The bright red numbers on the nightstand stood out in the darkness of Pete Fernandez’s bedroom. Some sunlight crept into the space created by his hastily drawn blinds. 2:30 in the afternoon. Pete groaned as his bloodshot eyes scanned the room. Clothes scattered on the floor. Mail strewn at his feet on the bed. Pete’s black messenger bag tossed near the door. He covered his eyes with his palm. The throbbing in his forehead was bad.
Of course, the literary private detective usually has his for reasons exhibiting such behavior. It's often because he's haunted. Pete Fernandez has a large number of personal demons that he's wrestling with. 1) He's trapped in a job that he doesn't care for. 2) He hasn't fully gotten over the death of his father—a police officer who raised him as a single parent. 3) Worst of all, Pete's tormented by the memory of his relationship with Emily, his former fiancée who married someone else and with whom he's now trying to be friends. Here, he reminisces about the day she left:
She walked to the cab, dropped the remaining bags in the trunk and got in the car. Pete remembered walking up to her window. She didn’t lower it. She was looking straight ahead. He rapped his fingers on the window. Nothing. She looked back at him for a fleeting moment and then the cab was moving. Pete was tempted to chase after her, like in the movies. All that he had left, though, was dust.
The memory disappeared as quickly as it had popped into his head. Pete made himself cough in an effort to explain away his red eyes to anyone that cared.
Like many tormented detectives, Pete has turned to booze to help him manage his demons, but then one day, a co-worker enlists him for a job. The job is to find his co-worker's missing daughter, and it reawakens a desire and knack for uncovering the truth that Pete thought he had misplaced. This job will turn his world upside-down, put him in a heap of danger, and perhaps give him a new sense of purpose.
Taking cases leads a private detective to confrontations with dangerous enemies. A classic antagonist is rich, powerful, and untouchable by the law because of political clout, fear of violence, or both. In Silent City, the adversary is a seemingly mythical underworld hitman known as the Silent Death.
The story went on, outlining the history of the Silent Death. A black-suited killer who wore a black mask and only appeared at night, the Silent Death was responsible for a string of murders dating as far back as seven years. His influence, in addition to aiding and colluding with gangs across the state, cast a shadow over the only force entrusted to bring him in, the Miami Police Department. Through a combination of payoffs and actual murders, the Silent Death had made himself immune to investigation and thus to arrest. Kathy noted in her text that over 60 percent of the force was actively taking money from either the Silent Death or Miami gangs who regularly employed him as a hitman.
Battling powerful adversaries like the Silent Death also means attracting the attention of law enforcement. Sometimes, the cops that are drawn into a detective's orbit will help them, and sometimes hinder. For Spenser, it was Martin Quirk. For Mike Hammer, it was Pat Chambers, and for Pete Fernandez, it's his father's old partner, Detective Carlos Broche:
“Just go,” Broche said. He seemed dejected, slumped in his chair, no longer looking at Pete. “Do exactly what I told you and never involve yourself in police business again. Do not mention anything about this story you say she’s working on. You’re putting yourself and everyone around you at risk, even if you’re talking bullshit. You’re not helping, even if you think you’re smarter than everyone else. You’re not. Not when it comes to this.”
Broche is just one of a handful of a cast of eclectic characters that becomes embroiled in Pete's investigation into the Silent Death. Watching that investigation unfold and seeing how it impacts Pete is part of the fun of Silent City, which is both a classic and a unique detective novel. It's a classic tale in that it has many of the hallmarks that make private detective stories so enjoyable. What makes the novel unique though is that it's essentially an origin story. In most private detective tales, the hero is already in business for himself, but in Silent City, Segura gives readers the story of how a haunted, broken-down, alcoholic journalist is transformed into a private detective and it's a pretty powerful and exciting tale.
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