Second outing for Ulfelder’s Conway Sax stays true to character

Steve Ulfelder’s debut mystery, Purgatory Chasm, was a finalist for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar award for Best First Novel.  I liked the book – it had a strong voice, an interesting main character with a complicated history, and a plot with as many twists and turns as a backroads rally.  Now he’s back with a second outing for Conway Sax, the race car driver turned auto mechanic who has a commitment to his AA group (the Barnburners) that rivals his commitment to his girlfriend, in The Whole Lie.  Seven years ago, former lover Savannah Kane had sought Conway’s help to make a new life.  Now, she shows up looking for his help again, and claiming that she had an affair with the man now running for lieutenant governor of the state.   As she explained, “Bert Saginaw has a little John Edwards problem.  And I’m Rielle Hunter… I asked you and Moe to disappear me seven years because I was pregnant with what the tabloids call a love child.”

Needless to say, Conway’s sense of obligation to the Barnburners spurs him to help Savvy, even though he’s not sure she’s telling him the whole truth.   And there’s plenty of untruths to go around.  Bert Saginaw’s got a passel of secrets, he’s got staff dedicated to keeping them buried, a screwy relationship with his too-close sister, and even super-clean, super-popular gubernatorial candidate Betsy Tinker has a dark side.  Conway risks it all – his romance with girlfriend Charlene, their successful business partnership, his growing relationship with Charlene’s daughter – to help Savvy and unravel the final knot in the very knotty twine-ball of a plot.

What’s good about The Whole Lie:  The characters are three-dimensional, it’s impossible to foresee the plot twists, and the book has a touching ending of personal redemption.  The Sax character, so successfully introduced in the series debut, is true to himself and the book has the same strong voice that I had admired in Ulfelder’s first book.

Not so good:  The plot has more bad guys and plot points than you can shake a stick at, there’s a lot of death and violence, both on-screen and off, and many characters (maybe too many) are truly perverse.

Worth reading? If you liked Purgatory Chasm, absolutely.    And if you’re looking for the literary equivalent of an action movie – mostly kept aloft through suspension of disbelief and a runaway freight train of a plot – you’ll enjoy The Whole Lie.

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