The Fraud by Brad Parks is the 6th mystery in the Carter Ross series about the Newark, New Jersey journalist (available July 7, 2015).
The Fraud grabbed me from page one. I’d been reading another book before this one, a page or two at a time and falling asleep or getting distracted or picking up something else to read instead. Part of the difference here is Brad Parks’ conversational writing style, like a friend is telling you a story over drinks. Part of it is the hook that starts the novel, the sort of semi-rhetorical question that could’ve fallen apart if he didn’t also make you immediately care about the characters:
It’s a hypothetical question every parent considers at some point:
Would you give your life for your kid?
Would you dive in front of a speeding eighteen-wheeler to shove your daughter out of the way? Would you let your son take your heart when his number didn’t come up on the transplant list? Would you place your head under the guillotine as part of some Faustian bargain wherein your child didn’t have to?
Oh, I know what you’re thinking, if you’re a parent: yes, yes, yes, and yes. Even if it was just to spare yourself the agony of burying your own kid, you’d make that sacrifice every time. Or at least that’s what you tell yourself you would do. What kind of selfish coward wouldn’t?
But hold on a second. Don’t answer yet. Because you still don’t know everything.
Sometimes when a book grabs me so hard and doesn’t let go, my problem is that I have trouble explaining why, other than I couldn’t put the darn thing down. The narrator makes you believe his love of the newspaper industry, his specific job as an investigative reporter, and the city of Newark. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t recognize Newark might have a problem or two.
You don’t stop for red lights late at night in Newark, Jew Jersey. At least you don’t if you know what’s good for you.
In some neighborhoods – I’ll be kind to the city I love and call them affluence-challenged – stopping at a red light after a certain hour signifies one of two things. One, I would like to buy drugs, please sell them to me; or two, I am stupid, please rob me.
And in case my big talk about taking bullets and saving babies has made me sound brave, heroic, or especially glutted with courage, I should probably correct that misapprehension straight off: I’m basically a chicken. Have been my whole life. Proud of it.
As a self-respecting, dedicated chicken, I regularly performed what my colleagues and I at The Newark Eagle-Examiner referred to as “the Newark Cruise.” When you saw a red light, you slowed well ahead of time, giving yourself room to ease up to the light while still maintaining a rate of speed that would deter anyone from approaching your car.
Chapters narrated by the intrepid reporter Carter Ross are interspersed with third-person chapters from persons who may or may not be the bad guys. Let’s just call them suspicious characters. The kind who wear masks, follow cars, and think of killing people as solving a problem. One of them really hates his great-aunt’s cat. My furry minions were rooting for things to end badly for that guy.
Which is to say that the conversational style makes it easy to get invested in the characters. Even if you start to wonder if Carter is barking up the wrong tree, or you start to think maybe some of his guesses don’t make much sense, you believe his enthusiasm. And when you see him heading off into potential danger or doing things that could get him locked up, fired, or dead, you’re rooting for him to get it right.
You’re also pissed about the wasted lives of the victims: Okeke, the father the media didn’t notice had died, and Tiemeyer, whose beloved watch doesn’t even fetch what the killer had hoped. It’s the sort of senseless violence that shows up all the time on the news, but often doesn’t make it into mysteries, because plots are easier to write if motive links back to lovers and co-workers and family members.
The book is also funny, though. Parks isn’t a maudlin writer. He peppers the gritty with the amusing, and Carter Ross is an affable guy who, while competent and capable, is given to a certain cynical, witty sarcasm :
If you wanted a cure for depression – or want to feel uplifted about your fellow man – stopping at a Newark liquor store is not something I’d recommend. The one I chose was an excellent example of its type. It was housed in a building that exuded ugliness from a chipped, sooty tile exterior that may have once been yellow but had since faded into something less than that.
Its defensive structures were depressingly impressive. The top of the walls were protected by sharp, outward-curling metal ramparts whose purpose was to prevent would-be thieves from scaling up to the roof. The windows – or portals where there perhaps had once been windows – were covered over in concrete. All other conceivable points of access, everything from the door to the heating and cooling vents, had bars on them. There were fifteenth-century Moorish fortresses that were easier to penetrate.
But don’t let me leaving you thinking Carter’s a sad-sack alcoholic or the sort of surly newspaper stereotype who fell out of an eighties TV drama. He, when not annoying people with questions or threatening criminal enterprises, gets along with almost everyone from community-minded former interns to his “work husband,” Tommy, and most of the victims’ relatives. It works out pretty well for him, and, you know, keep your friends close and your enemies closer.
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Neliza Drew is a tofu-eating teacher and erratic reader with a soft spot for crime fiction. She lives in the heat and humidity of southern Florida with three cats and her adorable hubby. She listens to way too much music, writes often, and spends too much time on Twitter (@nelizadrew).
Read all posts by Neliza Drew on Criminal Element.