Tag Archives: Steve Ulfelder

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.

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