The Edgar Awards Revisited: Silent Joe by T. Jefferson Parker (Best Novel, 2002)
By Joe BrosnanDecember 6, 2019
Joe Brosnan, fittingly, takes a look at T. Jefferson Parker's Silent Joe, a California noir overflowing with corruption.
Before I dove into Silent Joe, T. Jefferson Parker was one of those names alongside Michael Connelly, Robert Parker, Sue Grafton, and dozens of others on a mental list titled “Authors I Should Probably Read One of These Days.” Thanks to this reread, I can finally cross him off, though if I’m being honest, I’m not sure how quickly I’ll go seeking out another of his books.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the book. I did. It was good. Closer to fine than great, but good nonetheless. And it was intricate. Dense. If there was ever a crime novel that needed a Cast of Characters in the preface, it’s this the one, because Silent Joe is jam-packed with all sorts of people.
First, there’s our eponymous Joe, a man with a horrific facial scar—obtained as a child at the hands of an acid-throwing, meth-head otherwise known as dad. After the attack, Joe went into child protective services, eventually being adopted by Will Trona, a California sheriff’s deputy and future local politician. While Will raised Joe, he also trained Joe, laying the groundwork that would take him from a shy, insecure child to an ultra-perceptive, intimidating man. Will instilled Joe with a strong mental and physical framework needed to grow into his ideal right-hand-man. Beyond all else, there was one thing Will drilled home during Joe’s training:
Eyes open, mouth shut. You might learn something.
Conveniently, Joe has an eidetic memory, allowing him to soak up invaluable information as he stands guard for Will at countless meetings. Between his youth (he’s only 24 years old), his scar, and the perception that he’s merely the muscle, Joe is overlooked and ignored, allowed to essentially serve as a tape recorder for Will, who seems to spend his life being driven by Joe from shady meeting to shady meeting.
Eventually, Will takes the wrong meeting with the wrong people and is murdered in a dark alley by a group of well-dressed mystery men while Joe watches from the driver’s seat of their nearby car. Joe manages to kill two of the hitmen before they escape, and by the time Joe gets to Will, he’s dead. What follows is a classic, noir-ish tale of revenge, corruption, and weird dudes sleeping with women way out of their league.
Some of what T. Jefferson Parker does is great. You know how when you watch a season of 24, you know that the bad guy you meet during Hour 4 is obviously not going to be the bad guy in the finale. He’ll probably die. Then we’ll meet his boss. And then his boss’s boss. And so on. Well, that’s sort of how Silent Joe plays out. Joe starts recreating Will’s final days, taking meeting after meeting with the men and women who Will crossed paths with, hoping to find a link to the murder. And it’s fun! The cast of characters are colorful, diverse (for a mid-2000s piece of crime fiction written by a white male), and unique. It took me some time to be able to keep all of the characters straight in my head, but I enjoyed how insurmountable Joe’s task felt and how deep-running the corruption seemed to be. I also appreciated the way Joe slowly learns about Will’s transgressions, proving that his adoptive dad wasn’t the crusading guardian angel he thought him to be.
If I’m being honest—and this probably breaks some old ancient Joe Code—I wish we had a different guide through this story than Joe. I wish we were able to peer inside Will’s mind. Or any of the other dozens of characters we meet along the way. Joe might have been better in small doses, but having to read him monotonously recall everything that happened to him made this book feel insurmountable at times. And don’t even get me started on Joe’s sexual recollections:
A little before three A.M. I was standing on June Dauer’s patio overlooking Newport Harbor. The lights twinkled ont he water and the air smelled of salt and barnacles and nightshade. I knocked and waited. She answered the door in the dark and whispered for me to come in.
We started making love at 3:08, 5:22, and 7:12. We ate cereal with whole milk and honey on it at 4;15, and I fried up some eggs, bacon, sausage, and potatoes at 6:30, which I served with waffles, melon and orange juice.
To be fair, this a lot more to this book than simply Joe. There are a variety of corrupt local officials, politicians, and police. There are multiple gangs and their terrible leaders. There are blue-collar workers wronged by the system. Mourning family members. Duplicitous secretaries. Shady megachurch pastors. A slippery billionaire. Said slippery billionaire’s kidnapped daughter. And said daughter’s kidnapper, her possibly-insane brother. In lesser hands, this story would have spiraled disastrously out of control, but Parker’s firm touch guides the story to a satisfying, if not predictable conclusion. It was a trip worth taking, I just wish Joe wasn’t behind the wheel.
Notes from the 2002 Edgar Awards:
- The other nominees for Best Novel were Harlan Coben’s Tell No One, S.J. Rozan’s Reflecting the Sky, D.W. Buffa’s The Judgement, and Ed McBain’s Money, Money, Money.
- Edward D. Hoch hosted the awards as The Grand Master.
- The Best Episode in a TV Series category went to arguably one of the best television episodes of all-time: “The Pine Barrens” from HBO’s The Sopranos.
- Christopher Nolan’s jumbled classic, Memento, won Best Motion Picture, edging out other classics including Mulholland Drive and Gosford Park.
- David Ellis’s Line of Vision won Best First Novel, ousting C.J. Box’s Open Season, Gabriel Cohen’s Red Hook, Denise Hamilton’s The Jasmine Trade, and Victor Gischler’s Gun Monkeys.
We’ll see everyone back here next week as John Valeri returns with a review of Winter and Night by S.J. Rozan, the 2003 Edgar Award winner of Best Novel. See you then!
A special thanks goes out to The Mysterious Bookshop for donating many of the review copies of the award-winning books. For the latest on all new releases, as well as classic books for your collections, make sure to sign up for their newsletter.