Review: ‘Murder, D.C.’ by Neely Tucker

Murder, D.C. Neely Tucker. Viking. 290 pages. $27.95.
Murder, D.C. Neely Tucker. Viking. 290 pages. $27.95.

Neely Tucker’s first novel, 2014’s The Ways of the Dead, introduced readers to Sully Carter, the hard-drinking Washington, D.C., crime reporter who whips around the halls of American power on his Ducati and carries wounds both physical (shrapnel) and emotional (the memory of a lost love) from his years abroad as a foreign war correspondent. That novel was a well-paced thriller with a decent mystery at its core. But its biggest achievement — especially in a genre that occasionally takes paths of minimal resistance — was the inclusion of certain considerations of race, such as how a murder victim’s skin color will change the way that the life is valued or how justice is pursued.

In all respects, Tucker’s second novel improves and impresses. Murder, D.C. takes place a few months after the events of the first book, in the year 2000, when the body of a young black D.C. scion of money and influence, Billy Ellison, turns up shot in the head, floating off Frenchmen’s Bend, a desolate section of the city’s coastline known for drugs and violence. “The murder Capitol of the Murder Capitol,” Sully calls it (Tucker has invented Frenchmen’s Bend for the story’s purposes, but an analogous area could probably be found in every major American city).

In another time, though, the business on the bend was even less conscionable — for decades, it was the site of the city’s slave pens and auction blocks, “its chattel packed into long-gone wooden pens. … put on a platform, and sold off onto ships bound for cotton plantations down south. It had opened long before Washington was the capital. … the shame of the city, slaves force-marched through the streets in neck shackles.”

Initially, Carter’s interest in the case is entirely journalistic — a rich kid turning up dead on the wrong side of town is a good story, and when he learns Billy was gay and maybe dealing drugs, he can’t resist the scoop (as one of his editors says: “Dead body in the Washington channel, scaring the tourists, what’s not to love?”). But as he is drawn deeper into the question of who pulled the trigger, and the body count mounts, he finds his standards of impartiality begin to erode. And when his house his ransacked, his Ducati keyed and his impressive supply of bourbon dumped out on his furniture, things become personal.

Tucker’s skill in examining racial questions separates this novel from the well-populated pack. There is huge risk for a writer taking on these questions, such as how the physical memory of a specific experience of slavery — the places in which they lived and were sold, their names — can inhabit a place and the collective memory of a family. And if Tucker occasionally looks a little silly in trying to emulate street patois, other passages make up for such missteps, such as the scene in which one of Carter’s sources explains to him what can make the difference in an inner city life going astray: “The problem with … most of the brothers out there, is margin of error. Bethesda, Potomac, white boy gets in trouble? Suspended, counseling, expunged. Puff, poof, bye-bye. Brother down here gets caught dealing? Arrest, record, expelled. And where he going to find a job then?... How you going to write that in your newspaper?”

There are three pillars supporting the narrative here, and Tucker is equally at home inhabiting all three of them: the newsroom, the precinct and the street. What all three spheres share is the fact that you need attitude to survive, or at least the ability to take your licks and keep moving forward, with some sort of goal or moral propping you up while recognition and monetary reward are virtually nonexistent. In his evocation of these highly charged spaces, Tucker at his best recalls the work of Richard Price.

Attitude flows through Sully in equal measure with his Basil Haydens, and makes for terrific summer reading. With his second success, Tucker has proven that his series is one to follow.

Nicholas Mancusi is a writer in New York.