Briarpatch by Ross Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Benjamin Dill is investigating some shady international arms dealers for a US Senate subcommittee when he gets a call that his younger sister Felicity, a police detective in their Southern hometown, has been killed by a car bomb. Since Ben’s old buddy Jake Spivey just so happens to be one of the arms dealers they want to talk to, the ambitious senator that Ben reports to offers to pay his travel expenses if he deposes Spivey while he’s there.
Hey, dead sister or not, if you get a chance to travel on the company credit card instead of your own dime, you gotta take it.
When Ben gets back home, he learns that his sister had bought some real estate she shouldn’t be able to afford on her salary and that she had named him as the beneficiary on a large life insurance policy she took out just weeks before. With the implication that Felicity might have been a dirty cop, Ben starts to ask questions even as the police department assures him that they’ll find her killer soon. As he digs into his sister’s death, Ben also meets Jake Spivey who hints that his arms dealing had been done for the CIA, and that he’ll deliver information on another dealer who is now an international fugitive in exchange for immunity. Ben finds himself trying to sort out both local and national political agendas while dealing with the various agendas and lies of all the people around him.
The only other Ross Thomas novel I’ve read is The Porkchoppers, but I already love the way he mixes grungy back-room politics with crime. This was published just a few years before the Iran-Contra scandal so the backdrop of shady arms deals seems perfectly plausible, as is the local good-ole-boy-network of the local town. Thomas also makes every place feel authentic by building up the fictional history of this town as Dill visits various locations, and there’s a story attached to every place he goes. The whole atmosphere is delightfully squalid in a Reagan-era kind of way.
There’s also a colorful cast of characters, and Ben Dill is a great lead who is determined to avenge his sister even if he has few illusions about the moral character of everyone, including himself. Jake Spivey is a lot of fun as a poor redneck who went looking for a fortune, and after making it returns to his hometown to flaunt his wealth and build a power base.
This won the 1985 Edgar Award for Best Novel, and it absolutely deserved it.
(Oh, and I’ve also watched the recent TV show based on the book, and while it isn’t as good as this, it had a lot of things I liked about it.)
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