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:
- Bent Road by Lori Roy
- Purgatory Chasm by Steve Ulfelder
- Last to Fold by David Duffy
- Red on Red by Edward Condon