(Editor’s note: This review comes from Steven Nester, host of Poets of the Tabloid Murder, a weekly Internet radio show heard on the Public Radio Exchange [PRX]. Nester is also a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Rap Sheet, Mystery Scene and Firsts Magazine. He last wrote for January Magazine about Shirley Barrett’s debut historical novel, Rush Oh!)
“Being from Detroit, I’ve never quite trusted happiness,” says the eponymous August Snow, whose name describes something rare and improbable. Snow, it turns out, is a fairly uncommon man. With a shattered personal life, this former Marine, ex-cop, and biracial “Blaxican” has returned home to Detroit, Michigan, after an exile of “international drinking,” to stake his future on saving the city of his birth, one house at a time, beginning with the one he grew up in. But he soon finds himself trying to save more than just real estate.
Now a millionaire, after exposing city corruption and winning a wrongful-termination suit, Snow has the means to live quietly; but as is the way with many noir heroes, trouble disrupts his bliss and seeks him out. In this case, Snow is asked by Eleanor Paget to reveal the unfriendly organization that’s attempting to take over her investment bank. When Paget is discovered dead in an apparent suicide, alarms go off and Snow enters a business and family circle so depraved and dysfunctional that it could cause even Raymond Chandler to raise an eyebrow.
Snow is a nice guy. He’s “real.” In his debut novel, August Snow (Soho Crime), Stephen Mack Jones has created a character any reader could identify with. As the son of an African-American cop and a Mexican mother, Snow describes himself as a “mestizo conquistador with a healthy dose of Mississippi blues.” He knows he’s unique, and therefore understands the marginalized and the abandoned of society—people such as the local drug dealer he takes steps to straighten out. Snow teaches that lucky young man how to renovate houses, a valuable skill in his derelict neighborhood, and perhaps a thankless enterprise in a city that is more dead than alive. “Flipping property these days in Mexicantown was just like seeing the other side of a beat-up penny,” Snow opines. But there’s a bank to be investigated here, so Snow puts down his hammer in order to pick up his gun.
Shed of his dusty work clothes, and “looking like a million offshore bucks,” Snow walks in through the front door of Paget’s bank and immediately roils an international crime syndicate. He’s also attracted the attention of the FBI, which eventually hires Jones’ protagonist to aid in its own investigation. Very few people remain untainted by the dirty money flowing into the bank, and Snow, who loves beer and food, could spend the rest of his days as a man of leisure, but instead works hard to get to the bottom of things, including the uncovering of ancillary crimes that the Pagets would rather keep buried.
Stephen Mack Jones is a poet and an award-winning playwright, which has served him well in writing August Snow. He’s able to channel an inner-Chandler on command, with off-hand hardness (“I might as well have been talking to a freshly cut slab of slaughterhouse beef”). But stylistically he’s his own man, as when he turns deceit into poetry: “If you’re gonna lie, go big and wear other people like camouflage.”
Many poets have written novels, from John Berryman (Recovery) and E.E. Cummings (The Enormous Room) to William Carlos Williams (White Mule). Luckily for readers, Jones was attracted to a genre with a well-delineated plot structure, allowing him a bit of freedom from narrative chronology to concentrate on characterization and expression, and to expand their potential in a lyrical and pithy manner—that is, to write prose that sounds like poetry.
When the going gets tough—between mysterious hit men, dirty cops, and Paget’s innocent and imperiled daughter—no one is more rugged, or slyer, or more proactive than Snow. In times of struggle he never loses his sense of humor, which is to say, he never loses his humanity.
Says he: “Killing people has never been easy for me, even when I was a Marine and on the job. But two things made killing easier: Knowing that I’d killed bad people intent on do harm to others. And knowing there’d be donuts afterwards.” ◊