Mission Flats

by William Landay

Published by Delacorte Press

384 pages, 2003

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Reviewed by Sarah Weinman


The debut novel is a paradoxical creature. Its author has no prior track record, no expectations that accompany, say, the next in a series or a change of pace. He or she comes to the literary effort with a clean slate, yet accompanied by tremendous baggage. First works herald, one hopes, the beginning of a long career, during which the author will continually improve upon the craft, expand on horizons and produce better and better books. Thus the maiden novelist has a potentially limitless future -- provided, of course, that his or her initial offering sells well enough to ensure that such a future is possible. In the current publishing climate, this means that first novels can't just show embryonic potential -- they must be fully formed and perfectly polished, ready to fulfill the publisher's heightened expectations of their being the "next big thing."

Perhaps, then, the biggest compliment one can bestow upon an author is that his or her debut novel doesn't read like one.

Luckily, at least in crime fiction, the forces at work have seen the release of many wonderful debut volumes this year, from authors-to-watch including Alafair Burke (Judgment Calls), Jacqueline Winspear (Maisie Dobbs), Edward Wright (Clea's Moon) and Lono Waiwaiole (Wiley's Lament). However, these wordsmiths, tremendously promising as they are, are still just that: promising. Their premiere efforts suffer somewhat from a lack of seasoning and a slightly unsure command of their respective writing voices. William Landay's Mission Flats, on the other hand, leaves the world of promise far behind, and emerges as an assured, confident work. It's beyond a debut, it is simply a novel.

Versailles, Maine -- that's ver-SALES, as the locals like to point out -- is not a happening place. Crime outside of the occasional case of vandalism and disorderly conduct isn't just aberrance; it's not on the radar at all. This makes Benjamin Truman's job as the chief of police that much easier. Only in his mid-20s, he already has several years of experience in the job he inherited from his father -- years that he had intended to devote to finishing up a doctorate in history, but that were cut short when his mother was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's. (She succumbed to that disease only weeks before this story opens.) Ben has never had to use a gun, never had to deal with violent assaults, and most certainly never had to investigate a homicide. Naturally, this changes when he discovers a decomposing body in a cabin near the local lake.

This is not just any old corpse, though; it's the remains of a prominent prosecutor from the Boston district attorney's office. The deceased had been investigating several gangland murders in and around Versailles' seedy Mission Flats district. As high-ranking cops pour into his little town, Truman feels the squeeze. This slaying happened on his turf, and he found the body. Even though the inquiry is effectively taken away from him, he can't let it go. He's compelled to find out what happened. Although they view Truman as more of a nuisance than a help, the Boston police and prosecutors who are probing the death decide to keep the chief in the loop -- within reason. It's fine to humor the young chief, but spoon-feeding him more information than necessary simply won't do.

Following a few tenuous leads, Truman leaves the comforts of Versailles to travel to Boston -- the first time in years that he's gone anywhere else. He is accompanied by retired Beantown police officer John Kelly, whose cynicism serves as a foil to Truman's youth and small-town idealism. The police chief needs help dealing with the harsh realities of poverty and drugs, both of which permeate Mission Flats. And he struggles not only to keep pace with inconsistencies and tenuous links between the current murder and earlier ones (from 10 years and 20 years before, respectively), but to keep himself out of trouble, as suspicion turns his way. Is Ben Truman an innocent bystander in all of this, or something far more sinister? The inquiry follows a slippery slope until a stunning climax that turns everything on its head.

Landay's plot alone would make Mission Flats a superior read. Its pace is brisk, nothing and no one is what they seem, and the story's two major twists are shocking but play perfectly fair. But what elevates this debut work into near-literary territory is the depth of character development of Ben Truman and those people closest to him, showing off Landay's elegant, straightforward prose style. Truman is one of the more unusual police protagonists to come around in quite some time. He's experienced, yet young; his history background, which might seem disadvantageous to a cop, actually proves to be a bonus. When perusing archived police documents about the decade-old murder of a cop, his excitement at piecing things together comes across as genuine:

... I quickly fell to the task of sifting them and, out of old habit, trying to see the events in real time. To be there. I'd done similar reconstructions before, as a would-be historian, before my life was interrupted -- before my mother's illness mooted all my own plans for the future. This was the essence of historiography, piecing together a moment in time from primary sources. When I was in school, it had all seemed like a very romantic adventure: I was a time traveler, riding the matrix of time and place. Poring over the ten-year-old file on [his] murder, that adolescent, almost physical sense of transport did not return, but some of the old pleasure did. For the next few hours I was lost in the events of a decade earlier. There was even a little flush of confidence about my abilities as a policeman, for what is a detective but a species of historian?

Ben's cerebral nature makes him extremely appealing, but it's also a tragic flaw. Because he's always analyzing, always working below the surface, it makes the chief a somewhat unreliable narrator. This is a risky move on Landay's part, but it works wonderfully, maintaining the level of suspense at an even higher pitch. The reader is never certain of Ben's motives, never quite sure if his version of the story is accurate. Yet in spite -- or perhaps because -- of his unreliability, Truman is someone to root for. He is dogged, methodical and extremely loyal to his family, friends and most of all, to Versailles. Author Landay especially shines at portraying the difficulty of family ties. Ben has had to give up his dream to come home, take care of his ailing mother and take over a job he never wanted in the first place, dealing with his hard-drinking, garrulous father all the while. The two men love and need each other, yet they prove to be each other's downfall.

Contrasting with this is the tentative relationship Ben strikes up with John Kelly's daughter Caroline, a prickly, enigmatic woman who is also one of the assistant DAs working on the case. The complicated feelings when a friendship becomes more are something that Ben knows all too well:

The more she puzzled me, the more I thought about her; the more I thought about her, the more puzzled I became. Was she beautiful or just vivid? Was she warm ... or irascible, as she sometimes delighted in being? I wanted to understand her in my academic way. I wanted to flatten all that wonderful complexity and elusiveness into a few bald adjectives. No, I had not fallen in love. After a certain age you do not fall in love: Falling, with its implications of delirium and loss of control, is no longer the right metaphor. What you do is study your lover. You consider her. You turn her over in your hand like a coin from a foreign country. But then, that is a kind of love too.

Ultimately, this first effort by Landay, a former assistant district attorney in Boston, is as much about the investigation of a crime as it is about the investigation of the complexities of people. Early reviews have compared him to the likes of Scott Turow, Dennis Lehane and John Grisham. It's my belief that it won't be long before future debut novelists will be compared to a list of authors topped by Landay himself. Mission Flats is much more than a remarkable debut; it's one of the best efforts in crime fiction so far this year. Whether that places undue expectations on the author's future career will, of course, remain to be seen, but with Mission Flats, he's off to a flying start. | September 2003


Sarah Weinman is a regular contributor to January Magazine.