So far I’ve recapped four of the six finalists for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar award for the Best First Novel by an American Author – two spy tales, a racially-themed crime story, and a not-the-usual-formula legal thriller. Next up is John McMahon’s police procedural The Good Detective, which poses an unusual question: How do you solve a crime if you killed the prime suspect?
That “if” is a big question for Detective Paul Thomas (P.T.) Marsh of Mason Falls, Georgia. Big-hearted P.T. set out to help a stripper by throwing a scare into her neo-Nazi abusive boyfriend. He thought that a beating and a threat would do the trick. The next morning, he’s called to a murder scene. Yep, it’s that guy. If only P.T. could remember for sure, but ever since his wife and son were killed in a car wreck, he’s been drinking even more heavily than he did before. Blackouts are a pretty common occurrence.
The bad situation gets even worse when another body is discovered: a black teenager named Kendrick Webster has been tortured, lynched and murdered. The cops – including P.T. – make a split-second decision to remove the rope, knowing full well that hiding this element of the crime may save the family some anguish, but it also puts on the pressure to solve it quickly. This being a small town in Georgia, there are no lack of suspects – including the guy Det. Marsh might have killed, but solving it requires unearthing a motive that’s not obvious.
I read The Good Detective when it came out, spurred to do so by Marilyn Stasio’s review in the New York Times. She subsequently named it one of the ten best mysteries of the year. I agree with her… McMahon has a talent for writing interesting characters you will care about and setting them in a complex plot that isn’t overdone. P.T. is an example of the flawed, guilt-ridden, substance-abusing policeman, a type that started for me with Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder. Only instead of accidentally shooting and killing a young girl on a New York sidewalk as Scudder did, P.T. – happily drinking in his local tavern – ignored an incoming phone call from his wife. He didn’t help her; she and their son died. This colors how he sees the world, and as we turn the pages, we see Det. Marsh begin to emerge from his tragic fog.
The Good Detective concludes with a degree of forgiveness and an expectation of additional books featuring Detective Marsh, a prospect that I heartily endorse. Police procedurals are one of my favorite subgenres, and The Good Detective is a superb example of the type. It takes the top spot in the ranking. Only one more to go!