Crime thrillers that imagine newspaper reporters as investigators are often authored by journalists. Carl Hiaasen has done it (and done it superbly), and now, Neely Tucker is trying his hand with The Ways of the Dead. With a well-crafted plot marked by twists, turns, and surprises, Tucker, a Washington Post reporter, sets his murder mystery in the grittier precincts of the nation’s capital in the late 1990s. He casts an investigative reporter, Sully Carter, as a hero who plunges into a morass of politics and criminality and, along the way, uncovers a serial killer.
Carter drinks on the job and limps from war wounds sustained while covering the conflict in Bosnia. He’s as hard-boiled as Philip Marlow, though he talks and thinks like a character from an Elmore Leonard novel—to whom, among others, this book is dedicated. Carter hangs out with lowlifes and plays fast and loose with the rules: “There was risk attached, yeah, but if he’d learned anything from eleven years in the worst hellholes on earth, it was that reporting without risk was an oxymoron.”
Tucker is especially good on the contrast between high and low, as when he describes the posh federal courthouse, then turns to the D.C. bench, “the local bus station of justice, the dead end of urban life—loud, profane, noisy, crowded, ill behaved, umbrellas dripping rain on courtroom floors and switchblades confiscated at the front entrance.”
But one thing the genre never seems to permit is any clear-eyed look at how things got this way. Why does the local courthouse have to be a cesspool? And why do the feds get to gild every cornice? It’s safe to say that the divide between rich and poor is a staple of the hard-boiled detective genre, but it always seems carelessly thrown out there, a fact of life that is simply accepted, never really critiqued. Why so many lives are ground up by poverty is left to the polemicists or to other, more “serious” fiction.
Still, it is the contrast that drives the plot, ignited by the murder of a federal judge’s 15-year-old daughter in one of the seamier neighborhoods of D. C., where she attended a dance class led by a former member of the Alvin Ailey troupe. Carter has had run-ins with this particular judge before, a contretemps that nearly got him fired from the novel’s nameless paper (which must be, the reader assumes, the Washington Post).
Despite his turbulent past with the judge, this murder is too hot to ignore and Carter, investigating it, runs from one dive to another, engaging in powwows with big-time hoodlums and exploratory journeys to local strip joints, like the one “in the brutally ugly, dysfunctional eastern side of the city on New York Avenue...There were the beat-to-shit used-car lots, the Harbor Light Center (old drunks in wheelchairs, livers and kidneys gone), the fast food joints with the bathrooms littered with condoms and needles, the freight railroad tracks across the avenue and Ivy City, the neighborhood devastated by crack…”
Carter is an ace investigator, but it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that he makes some mistakes. These unfold after much criticism of the Metropolitan Police Department—its slowness, inefficiency, insensitivity to victims’ families. With one lead popping up after another, the reporter finds himself astonished that the police have not followed up on these; indeed, the failures of police work are starkly detailed. But though Carter pieces together a serial killer case, the novel is quite clear that this is not always the best way to go. Cops may be slow and obtuse, but most times, it’s best to leave the business of catching criminals to a professional. —Eve Ottenberg