(This is the April 2015 edition of Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For the complete list, click the icon at the bottom of this essay.)
With a bright yellow cover with a title like that, I wasn't sure what to make of the book CANARY by Duane Swierczynski. Before I read this book, the word conjured exactly two things in my head: a bird in a cage and the bird in a mineshaft. I had no idea what the word meant in the crime fiction context. Now I do, and I really like it.
Canary in crime fiction is a confidential informant. I guess because they sing like a bird to the law and spill all the dirt on the bad guys. The book CANARY focuses on a young college student, Sarie Holland. She attends school in Philadelphia--Swierczynski’s town--and, as the book opens, she’s nursing a beer at a party the night before she has to pick up her Dad at the airport. The mom’s dead and Sarie and her little brother live at home. It’s the night before Thanksgiving and she and her pals are studying for exams...at a party. Right. There’s a cute guy Sarie calls D. and she kinda likes him so she’s pretty surprised when he asks her if she could give him a life to a friend’s house. D. doesn’t drive and, after checking her watch and doing the mental math, Sarie agrees. At the destination, D. tells her to park in the special spot his friend has reserved.
No big deal, right? Wrong. Narcotics cop Ben Wildey is there, staking out the house of a mid-level dealer in the area--the very same house D. just entered. Unbeknownst to Sarie, Wildey’s spotted her and busts her. All he wants is D’s name. He is the one wearing the red pants, after all, you know, “your boyfriend.” Sarie doesn’t cave so Wildey has little choice but to bust her. Faced with the crisis that could ruin her life, Sarie opens Door #2: she decides/is forced to become a confidential informant. A canary.
Now, in the hands of some writers, this story starts to become a sermon on the dangers of drugs, the evils it can do, how the justice system is all out of whack. Well, rest assured, this is not that kind of book. With Swierczynski as the wheelman (wink wink), you are in for one heck of a good ride.
You see, Sarie takes her role as a canary pretty seriously. In fact, she’s convinced that as soon as she gives Wildey a name, he’ll be off her back for good. Being the good college student, she does research and starts to learn about the criminal world. And then she starts to deliver information to Wildey who just happens to be angling for a huge score back at the station. So is his captain. Then words gets around the criminal ranks that there’s a new snitch, and, well, drug dealers don’t like snitches.
The book is written in an interesting fashion. When it’s Sarie, Swierczynski writes in first person. Anyone else is in third person. This has the great advantage of literally getting inside Sarie’s head, the head of straight-arrow, middle-class college girl, as she learns and acts on what she learns. I listened to the book and Sarie’s narration was handled very well by Casey Holloway. She gives Sarie snark, fear, anger, determination, and humor all in the voice. George Bryant handles everything else and his nuances among the different characters, good guys as well as bad, are wonderful. On the page, Sarie’s words are in a different font so it’s a nice visual cue to let the reader know the a change in point of view is taking place.
I didn’t expect many of the twists and turns CANARY took but I enjoyed them all. There was a moment of coincidence that gave me a slight pause, but, by then, I was so into the book, I didn’t care. And then there’s the ending. Completely satisfying.
I’ve read many of Swierczynski’s books and enjoyed them all. I can, with good confidence, recommend CANARY, preferably the audio. It’s fantastic.
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