The next potential Edgar winner is David Joy for his gripping, moody and violent debut, Where All Light Tends to Go. In fact, there is little light to be seen. The book is dark, not the noir of city streets, but the noir of a poverty-stricken small town where violence is a given, escape is impossible, and lives play out pointlessly.
Joy’s protagonist faces almost insurmountable odds. 18-year-old Jacob McNeely dropped out of high school two years ago, accepting his place in their Appalachian town, where he’d been raised to be an accomplice to his father’s criminal activities. Charlie McNeely has a stranglehold on the region’s meth traffic, running his profits through a local garage, and taking it as his duty to toughen Jacob up. It’s a man’s world, where women are helpless afterthoughts – even Jacob’s mother. She may love him, but she’s also a lifelong drug addict and incapable of caring for herself. Her death in the book is shocking for Jacob and for the reader, and triggers a change in Jacob.
The only ray of light in Jacob’s young life is Maggie Jennings. Childhood friends, Maggie was Jacob’s first love and he was hers. He still loves her, and because of that love, he broke her heart. Without him to drag her down, he believes Maggie can go to college, leave their small town, and never look back. But is “over” ever truly finished?
It looks like Jacob is caught fast in his father’s web. When he and the Cabe brothers are assigned to “take care of” a man who’s threatening their business, Jacob follows through, and it’s a stomach-turning process. They throw the man’s tortured body into a nearby ravine. When it turns out that the man wasn’t dead, there’s more killing to come. And more on top of that. But then… a glimmer of hope. A local lawman – the only man who has ever shown Jacob any kindness – wants Charlie McNeely dead. If Jacob can double-cross his dad, he can steal his cash, and he and Maggie can leave town together and create a whole new life. I won’t spoil the ending, so enough said.
Where All the Light Tends to Go has a lot of ugliness in it, a lot of violence, and a lot of sadness. It also has a lot of heart. I found it be almost cinematic, very easy to visualize every scene and every character. It doubles down at every turn, and Jacob McNeely is truly a tragic hero.
How does Joy’s book stack up against Past Crimes? Interestingly, both books feature criminal protagonists brought into a life of crime by a father or father-figure. In Past Crimes, this is primarily backstory for the main character, as Van Shaw has made a complete escape and returns voluntarily. In Light, it is all Jacob is and can ever be.
I find that Hamilton’s book reminds me of Ace Atkins’ Quinn Colson series, a well-done and enjoyable read. Joy is more likely Lori Roy, offering an insightful look at the human condition. So Where All Light Tends to Go takes the top spot.
Literary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking: Best First Novel