Tag Archives: David Duffy

Fourth Edgar nominee: Purgatory Chasm by Steve Ulfelder

April 26 is approaching quickly, so these reviews are coming fast and furious.  The Mystery Writers of America Edgar awards ceremony is Thursday!

Purgatory Chasm – sure to be a series – features auto mechanic and former race car driver Conway Sax.  Conway is also a recovering alcoholic and a member of a quirky AA group called the Barnburners.  In the AA tradition, Conway is obligated to help his fellow Barnburner Tander Phigg, who wants help freeing his vintage Mercedes from a crooked auto shop.

Of course, things go wrong, Tander’s murdered, and Sax is the primary suspect.  It’s a straight-forward story, a classic structure, and well-plotted and well-told by Ulfelder.

Most enjoyable is Ulfelder’s tone – the book has a clean, sharp voice, told in first person.  Here’s a sample (the first few paragraphs of the book):

There are drunken assholes, and there are assholes who are drunks.  Take a drunken asshole and stick him in AA five or ten years, maybe you come out with a decent guy.

Now take an asshole who’s a drunk.  Put him in AA as long as you like.  Send him to a thousand meetings a year, have him join the Peace Corps for good measure.  What you come out with is a sober asshole.

Tander Phigg was a sober asshole.

Getting to the bottom of Tander’s murder leads Sax on a wild ride (literally).  Purgatory Chasm is a fun, fast read.  And frankly, compared to the other three I’ve read, reviewed and rated so far, it was a relief.  While each of those books had much to recommend them (they are Edgar nominees, after all), Ulfelder’s debut was the only “classic” murder mystery in the running so far.

But is that enough to put it in the #1 spot?  I’ll tell you, it’s a tough one.  Ultimately, as much as I loved Purgatory Chasm, I have to give Bent Road the edge.  It’s just a more complex, deeper, more compelling story, with a strong sense of place and complex, interesting characters.  No one would say it was fun – but fun isn’t necessarily the most important criteria.

Rankings as we come down to the wire:

  1. Bent Road by Lori Roy
  2. Purgatory Chasm by Steve Ulfelder
  3. Last to Fold by David Duffy
  4. Red on Red by Edward Condon

Last to Fold third Edgar nominee

Turbo Vlast is an interesting man.  Once a zek, always a zek – Russian slang for a prisoner in a forced labor camp – even though he spent 20 years in the KGB after being plucked from the Gulag for his facility in language.  Turbo now runs a one-man (with some help from his friends and a chatty parrot) detective agency.

Last to Fold offers a twisty story wherein Turbo is retained to get to the bottom of a kidnapping – only to find out that the girl in question is the daughter of his own ex-wife.  He hasn’t seen Polina in 20 years, and she’s been living a tumultuous life since then, filled with crimes like embezzlement, identity theft and even murder.  Their personal relationship was also tumultuous, and the manipulative Polya was successful in separating Turbo from their son together, Aleksei.  The present-day mystery is rooted in a long-ago crime.  And let’s just say that Polya is not the only multi-faceted character with a strong unpleasant streak.  To get to the bottom of the many layers of intrigue, Turbo has to uncover answers to questions the Russian mob does not want asked.  He does so, but not without fallout.

What’s challenging about Last to Fold:  As many Russian names as Anna Karenina.  (Wait – Iakov!  Was he the good guy?  Or was that Ivanov?)  Many of the main characters hate each other, slept with each other, were married to each other, stole from each other, and betrayed each other.  All set against a backdrop of history that I’m not good with.

What’s good about Last to Fold:   Pretty tight timeline, funny parrot (Pig Pen), believable computer spyware, compelling character in Eva Mulholland (the “kidnapped” girl), and a killer twist at the end that I did not anticipate.  Well done, David Duffy!

How does it stack up against Bent Road and Red on Red, the two previously reviewed nominees for the MWA Edgar for Best First Novel by an American author?   For plot and characterization – better than Red on Red, not as good as Bent Road.  For voice – tie with Bent Road.  That gives Duffy’s nominee a spot smack dab in the middle:

Rankings so far:

  1. Bent Road by Lori Roy
  2. Last to Fold by David Duffy
  3. Red on Red by Edward Condon