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Beyond the Bridge by Tom MacDonald

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Reviewing is rather an odd way of passing the time. Unlike the real world in which I pick the books I want to read, boxes turn up on my doorstep and I add the new books to the pile. I operate on the taxicab rule. It’s strictly first in, first out. That way I keep track of the queue and know which books are next in line. I would like to say that all the books are at least good. If publishers or the marketers are going to send books out for review, you would hope they would always pick the better ones. That way the reviewers wouldn’t have to lie too much to sing their praises. Yet I’m still picking up real stinkers. Perhaps publishers or marketers get too close to their own product or clients, and lose their objectivity. The commissioning editor thought it good enough to buy. Hours of loving care have been spent preparing it for the market. They all want to think the best of it.

Ah well, such is the way of the world. And since taste is intensely subjective, I’m equally able to make mistakes. There’s no absolute right and wrong in this business. Everyone is peddling their own judgement. The publisher puts his or her head above the parapet with the latest title. By return, I fire back with my magisterial opinion. Sometimes, we’re in diametrically opposed camps. In the case of Beyond the Bridge by Tom MacDonald (Oceanview Publishing, 2013) I’m pleased to be able to report the publisher has hit the bullseye. This is one of the best PI novels or thrillers so far this year. Perhaps this is not surprising given the success of the first. I confess to having missed it, but according to the marketing blurb, The Charlestown Connection was Winner of Best First Novel 2012 Indie Book Awards, nominated for the 2012 International Thriller Awards, Best First Novel, a finalist for American Librarians Association, 2011 Book of the Year Award, and nominated for Reader’s Choice Award, Salt Lake City Utah Library Association.

Tom MacDonald

Tom MacDonald

So what’s it about? Well this is the second in an emerging series featuring Dermot Sparhawk set in Boston and, as is always the case when you want to catch out the unwary reviewer, it’s a prequel. Having proved a hit with the character, the author decided to show us how our Irish Native American Indian first got sucked into the investigation game. The backstory is set in the poorer part of Boston with our hero working in a charity outreach role for the Catholic church. Born and brought up in the area, he’s well known because he almost made it as a pro-football player. A knee injury cut short his fledgling career. There’s a real sense of authenticity about life in this area with the poverty and desperation to the fore. It’s a refreshing change from the more cozy middle-class approach to urban America which can allow the hero to visit the wrong side of the tracks, but not actually live there. In this novel, a serial killer is crucifying priests and our hero is asked by the brother of one of the victims to find out who was responsible. Out of courtesy, Dermot tells his priest what he’s doing and, when the Bishop hears, the work becomes more official.

With this character, we’re firmly into the land of novels dealing with disability which I discussed in the reviews of Bleed For Me by Michael Robotham and, to a lesser extent, in A Murder in Passing. Because alcoholism is slightly different, I’m going to expand on this theme a little. Addicted detectives have achieved some success through Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole, Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander, Ian Rankin’s John Rebus, and so on. The question is why authors saddle their detectives with a disability. The answer is simple. These fictional characters are going to show off superhuman mental abilities, out-thinking everyone from the tough and experienced police officers to the criminal(s) whodunnit. Since we readers are mental pygmies by comparison, we need to feel these paragons of mental virtue are credible and human enough to empathise with. Hence, they need to be given flaws. That way they become less than perfect and we can come to care about them. In the case of alcoholism, this is to some extent a self-inflicted disability and so we can be fighting alongside as they try to beat the demon booze through AA sessions and with the help of their sponsors. Equally important is the capacity of the character for growth. When he or she has a flaw, there’s always the chance of some recovery. Through rehabilitation, a character may regain some function in an injured limb. An alcoholic can go several chapters without taking a drink. Of course, when the weather gets cold, the old injury can flare up making movement painful. Similarly, one drink can lead to alcohol poisoning and near death experiences. Alcoholism also exposes our hero to added dangers. It’s more difficult to take a sober detective by surprise, but the bad guys can walk into the room of a man incapacitated by alcohol without fear (assuming they have the right room, of course — the wrong room could land them in a lot of trouble).

Beyond the Bridge is a very elegantly constructed puzzle. There are three immediately connected deaths but one doesn’t seem to fit quite as smoothly into the series. As Dermot begins to ask questions, he finds himself threatened which is always inspirational because it suggests he’s on the right track. By the time he’s finished, there are quite a few bodies. It’s par for the thriller course and our hero’s claims of self-defence are credibly supported by the evidence, so his personal tally doesn’t lead to a prosecution. That means there’s plenty of action and real ingenuity in how the final revelation is proved. Hence with trumpets blazing and fireworks leaping into the sky, I herald a terrific read, leaving only one question. Where does Dermot get what seems to be quite a lot of spending money?

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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