Sorrow's Anthem, Michael Koryta, St. Martin's/Minotaur, $22.95.
Talent doesn't always come in the packaging of mature adulthood; it's just surprising, sometimes, when it comes in the packaging of extreme youth. Michael Koryta, the St. Martin's Private Eye Award contest winner and Edgar and Shamus nominee for his first novel, Tonight I Said Goodbye, has turned in a sophomore effort that's even better than his first. Did I mention he was young? Still in his early 20's, his first dust jacket mentions his desire to finish college; the surprising part, I guess, is that the maturity in this novel is voiced by a twenty something, not a forty something. This is an almost perfect P.I. novel - and it's not just a formula, it's really deeply felt and moving at the same time. If it were just a formula, it would still be a good one: ex-cop Lincoln Perry buys a gym, becomes a P.I., and takes on an older and more experienced partner. He lives in Cleveland where he has some backstory (a lot of which comes up in this book); the setting is just unusual and quirky enough to rival Amos Walker's Hamtramack or Tess Monaghan's Baltimore, and the writing - smooth, assured and seamless - could just as easily have flowed from the pens of more seasoned writers like Robert Parker or Steve Hamilton.
The P.I. novel is such a reliable trope that many different kinds of writers can take it and bend it to their particular will; it's delightful to see Koryta's incarnation. This novel takes up and develops where the first one - a quick, extremely well told, enjoyable story - left off. It doesn't have the operatic quality of Dennis Lehane, but it does have some of the poetry: the "sorrow's anthem" of the title is Lincoln's father's word for the wail of police and ambulance sirens. As the novel begins, and a man from Lincoln's past - the man who made him quit being a cop - resurfaces, the "sorrow's anthem" of the title isn't far behind. Lincoln's old pal, Ed Gradduk, had blown his chance of getting out of prison and at the same time left Lincoln with such a bad taste in his mouth (there's more to the story, but I don't want to give it away), that Lincoln leaves the force. Ed has turned up again like a bad penny, asking for Lincoln's help when his life is abruptly cut short. Everything is against Lincoln in this one. His past and his childhood, even, come back to bite him, and his ties to his old neighborhood - severed when Ed went to prison - are reopened, and so are festering old wounds that need to be salved before the mystery of Ed's death and the secret he died with can be put to rest.
As Lincoln and his partner begin to unravel the story - and Lincoln is pretty much alone in feeling that Ed, an apparent suspect in an arson/murder - is innocent, they find not only a lot of closed doors but lots of leads that take them to places the police and others would rather not have them be. One of the best devices in a novelist's "tool box" (I often think) is a problem or person from the past resurfacing; in this case, it allows Koryta, in his sophomore effort, the chance to flesh out Lincoln's past and set him even more firmly into his distinctive Cleveland setting. He also brings in characters from Lincoln's present in a more than involving way, and really grabs at your emotions at the end of the book. Unlike many sophomore efforts this one is stronger than the first; this is obviously a writer who has a lot of good books ahead of him, as this novel deepens and tightens the strengths of the first one, building on a wonderful storytelling ability to add on layers of emotion and meaning. I can't wait to read the next in the series; Lincoln Perry is definitely a P.I. who's here to stay. Make room for him on your bookshelf.
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