Review of “The Ways of the Dead” by Neely Tucker

Author Neely Tucker is a staff writer for “The Washington Post,” and was the paper’s D.C. Superior Court reporter when Darryl Donnell Turner was indicted for murders committed in the 1990’s in a two-block area along Princeton Place in Washington, D.C. The case stayed in his mind, and he decided to write a novel – this one – based on what happened.

The reporter in the novel, Sullivan “Sully” Carter, is, like the author, also a former war correspondent, but one who struggles with PTSD and alcoholism after traumatic experiences in Bosnia that left him scarred both physically and emotionally. Now he works a crime beat that he considers much safer, if discouraging at times:

“You never stopped moving. That was the thing. You just kept pushing, driving, asking, sticking your nose in people’s faces, taking the shit, the insults, fighting back the depression and the sense of hopelessness and then, out of the void, sometimes somebody told you something.”

When a wealthy and connected young white girl, Sarah Reese, gets killed in the blighted area in which she takes dance lessons, other reporters are convinced the murder of fifteen-year-old was related to her having been the daughter of the chief judge of the federal judge and putative next Supreme Court nominee. However, Sully isn’t so sure. It happened in the same small geographical area as recent crimes against some other women, who, however, were residents and thus much lower on the socioeconomic scale. But the police never found the fate of the other women are worth investigating. As one neighborhood denizen explains to Sully:

“‘That Hispanic girl, she got killed last year. [A black girl] went missing? I didn’t read nothing ‘bout that in the newspaper.’ He kept going, white girl gets it, lookit the TV cameras, white girl gets it, lookit the papers…”

To help him figure out what happened to the girls of Princeton Place, Sully joins forces with Sly Hastings, the informal “boss” or warlord of the street’s Park View neighborhood. Sly doesn’t like anything going on in his turf about which he doesn’t know or control, so he seems interested in helping Sully figure out who committed the crime(s). In any event he is the best source for intel on the street. Sully doesn’t fear guys like Sly – he “didn’t even have a machete.” In Sully’s experience, there is much worse in the world, or so he thinks.

Discussion: Tucker’s writing draws obvious comparisons to his fellow D.C. crime writer George Pelacanos. Tucker provides enough detail to make you appreciate his familiarity with the area, but the location details don’t dominate the story like they do in the Pelacanos books. The work of Pelacanos is also a bit more situated in the underside of D.C. life, whereas Tucker’s focus is on newspeople who cover that underside. Nevertheless, this book (dedicated to Elmore Leonard) has its share of noir elements and the dialogue is a good mix of insider jargon, cynical shorthand, and gritty realism.

Surprisingly, the poverty rate in D.C. ranks third in the nation

Tucker has an interest in exposing the very interesting and stark contrast between the class and race divides in D.C., evident even in his telling description of the blatant differences between the federal courthouse and the local bench. Most tourists are unfamiliar with the large part of D.C. that is not in the immediate area of the gleaming white monuments, pink cherry blossoms, and chichi offices of law firms and lobbyists of the downtown area. The city makes a concerted effort to keep hidden the reality of the gangs, poverty and crack houses of certain areas like the 4th, 7th, and 8th Districts. (An anonymous American official in Kenya was quoted in the papers claiming that some towns in Kenya are safer than some neighborhoods in Anacostia in D.C.).

In any event, the power, money, and press attention in the city tends to concentrate on the federal – rather than local areas, and many crimes – especially when the victims are poor and black, just get ignored. (Tucker reported that at the time of the Princeton Place crimes – from 1984 to 1994, at least 1,800 people ages 15 to 44 died in the city under circumstances that “were not established” . . .) Thus the situation encourages corruption, cynicism, prejudice, and despair.

He also has plenty to say, through his characters, about the way the D.C. police force is run. Neely goes into detail, explaining just why and how bad decision-making and poor administration have resulted in “two out of three killers in the city . . . literally getting away with murder….”

Evaluation: Good dialogue, pacing, and an interesting plot with unexpected twists allow astute socioeconomic commentary to slip seamlessly into the narrative. Fans of hard-boiled crime fiction, especially those who like D.C. settings, will welcome the turn of this talented reporter to the genre. In spite of some of the depressing themes of the book, you come away feeling like you had a good read.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group, 2014

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2 Responses to Review of “The Ways of the Dead” by Neely Tucker

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    This sounds like something I’d like!

  2. Beth F says:

    I agree — sounds good. I like the DC setting.

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