Reporter with a drinking problem probes a racially charged murder in ‘The Ways of the Dead’

Washington, D.C., at the tail end of the last century: In an alley behind a convenience store in a predominantly black neighborhood on the city’s outskirts, the body of young, white Sarah Reese is found in a dumpster. The daughter of a prominent judge who might become the next Supreme Court justice, she appears to have been murdered by three young black men.

Onto this racially charged stage Sully Carter drunkenly swaggers. Sully is the protagonist of The Ways of the Dead, first in a series of crime novels from veteran Washington Post journalist Neely Tucker (whose first book, the 2004 memoir Love in the Driest Season, was named one of the best 25 books of the year by Publisher’s Weekly). Carter is a veteran journalist, too. He walks with a limp he picked up in Bosnia during his time as a war correspondent, when he took some flak from a shellburst.

Now, back in the States, he takes flak only from his editors, who look the other way about the bourbon-and-cokes that he drinks at his desk as long as he keeps churning out the gritty, atmospheric pieces for which he’s known. He is a gruff operator in the Elmore Leonard mold, whipping around the capital on his Ducatti and attempting to dull the memory of the woman from his past. He can safely be described as a man who carries a pen and a pad instead of a gun; that is, until he goes to the shelf in his closet.

Reporting is deadly serious business for Sully, and he’s not afraid to upset powerful cops, politicians and gang lords if they stand between him and a story. Reporting on the Reese murder, he develops a hunch that the killing may be connected to other disappearances of young women in the community, women whose deaths have been ignored because they weren’t white. He employs his facility at navigating the corridors of power, politics and publishing to get to the truth.

Tucker may be a first-time novelist, but as a career writer, he is well ahead of many of his peers, and this book is worthy of Elmore Leonard’s legacy (the book is dedicated to Leonard). In the suspense genre, cliché is often an expected feature, but Tucker makes sure that Sully’s demons are well-earned rather than tacked on in order to meet expectations. He is who we might expect him to be, given his experiences.

The close-third person prose effectively captures Sully’s world-weariness. He assesses damage after a run-in with an armed thug: “By the time he got back home, getting ice into a plastic bag, putting the bag on his jaw, trying to lower the welt that Darden had given him with the gun, he felt it coming on . . . your nerves, man, your precious bloody nerves. When the s--- was going down, he was fine, just fine, always had been. . . . [N]ow look at him . . . the shakes. It was all over and gone and now he had the tremors, standing in the kitchen in front of the refrigerator.” Although the plot is well-paced and believable, Sully is the force who will bring readers back to this series.

With equal ear for newsroom patter and street slang, Tucker has presented an exciting first novel that echoes the best writing of Pete Hamill and George Pelecanos, mixed with bit of The Wire and True Detective.

Nicholas Mancusi is a writer in New York.