Review by Joey Madia
Arthur Conan Doyle. Agatha Christie. Edgar Allan Poe. Peter Straub. The Mystery genre is certainly daunting. With such a rich heritage built over so many decades, one has to applaud any new writer breaking into the genre. How do you honor the well-known (and often well-worn) tropes that make the genre what it is while also bringing something new?
Let’s face it—not bringing anything new to a pillar of a genre such as Mystery is like playing a song note for note as originally arranged and expecting your cover to be remembered.
With this skeptical opening in mind, I have to congratulate Tom Kies on not only honoring what makes a good mystery a good mystery—twists and turns, richly detailed locations, lots of likely suspects, an overall moral depravity and subtle condemnation of society, and of course a compelling detective—he manages to bring something new and attention-getting to the genre: the main character’s private life literally and figuratively competes with the mystery all the way through.
Having met Kies on a few occasions, and knowing him for the bearded, gregarious man he is, imagine my surprise when the first-person narrator, on page 2, says, “Sweat trailed slowly out from under my bra…”! All levity aside, Kies does a masterful job of bringing the highly damaged and at times unlikeable and every-bit-a-woman Geneva Chase to life.
Kies’s background is in journalism, so it is no surprise that Chase is a lead reporter at the fictional Sheffield Post, where she is in constant danger of losing her job because of her alcoholism. Ah yes… that trope: the alcoholic news reporter. But in all tropes there must be some truth. It is a relentless, high-pressure, deadline-driven, high-stakes game reporters play. I think of the stories of Hunter S Thompson and films like The Paper and the more recent Spotlight, and Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom and it is easy to believe that a good portion of the best reporters also have their demons.
So far so good. Kies has brought something new (and frankly risky) to the genre and is writing about a field that he knows well (which shows in Chase’s relationships with the managing editors and with the local police and in interviewing witnesses and “chasing” down leads). Although he now lives on North Carolina’s Crystal Coast, Kies is from the north—New England and New York. Random Road takes place in an affluent area of Connecticut, and it is clear that Kies knows the people and the area from more than just research and a check of Google Earth. If you are like me and want to feel like you can see, smell, and taste the local atmosphere, especially in a mystery, you will not be disappointed.
I hesitate to bring too much to light in a review when it comes to a mystery. In many ways we are solidly in the genre—horrific murders, parallel crimes that breed numerous suspects, questions of class and wealth, a town on edge, a police force under pressure, and a cast of characters whose moral gauge tends to run to the barely there.
Within these tropes, Kies gives us much to keep us engaged. Geneva is a complex and interesting character—interesting because she is honest. Her life has been one of hard drinking, adultery, and endless bad decisions—and she knows it. When faced with the opportunity to do some good, she tries. Some she wins, some she loses. That is true to life.
Both the A and B stories—the solving of the murders and Geneva’s personal arc—are ripe with damaged people, on both sides of the law. Random Road delves into the dark underbelly of Appearance versus Reality. Almost everyone wears a mask. Almost everyone has been hurt or is in the process of hurting someone else. And Kies has developed the primary and secondary characters enough that we hear their stories and can understand, if not forgive, their aberrant behavior, because we can see its roots. No cartoony master criminals or out-of-nowhere sociopaths in Random Road. Just victims of their environment.
There is some irony in the novel being called Random Road (which is where Geneva’s primary love interest resides) because the novel has many coincidences. At first I questioned this as convenient to the author, but then I looked closer. It is a small community, where everyone knows one another and it is easy to see how paths would cross. Geneva is super-sharp to boot—she follows her nose (whenever it’s not in close proximity to a glass of vodka) and reads the signs, all in keeping true with her billing as an ace reporter.
And to be fair, coincidence is a necessary evil of the genre and tight storytelling in general.
Random Road is a powerful story of love, the danger of addiction, the harm of dysfunctional families, and the necessity of forgiveness as much as it is a tension-fueled crime drama. Kies accomplishes a lot in his first novel and in a genre inhabited by giants.
I hope there’s more to come.
TITLE: Random Road (A Geneva Chase Mystery)
AUTHOR: Tom Kies
PUBLISHER: Scottsdale, AZ: Poisoned Pen Press