by Earl Emerson
Published by Ballantine Books
368 pages, 2009
Big Brother Is Watching
Reviewed by Jim Winter
If reading and reviewing books over the past couple of months has shown me anything, it’s that we’re ready for change. Three out of the last four books I have reviewed had an undercurrent of anger toward the American government as run by George W. Bush. Thomas Lakeman’s Broken Wing barely disguises the author’s rage at military contractors such as Blackwater. Olen Steinhauer’s The Tourist does no favors for the CIA. And then there’s Earl Emerson’s first private eye Thomas Black novel in 10 years, Cape Disappointment.
Emerson starts this novel off with a bang. Literally. Black, a Seattle sleuth (last seen in 1998’s Catfish Café), recounts his too-close-for-comfort experience with a bomb explosion inside a school gymnasium, where a political candidate had been speaking. Since he was smacked against the wall and impaled, Black’s description is naturally surreal, disjointed and horrifyingly graphic. The story lurches and halts between the recent past, where Black recalls talking to his wife on the phone as he watched her plane suddenly crash, and the present, while he’s trying to recover in a hospital bed. Black’s tale becomes coherent when he’s able to focus on the beginning of his latest adventure.
It begins, in fact, in the office of his wife, Kathy Birchfield, a Seattle-area lawyer and operative for Democratic U.S. Senator Jane Sheffield. One of Kathy’s clients is an alcoholic named Bert Slezak, who firmly believes that shadowy government types are watching his every move. He’s also sweet on Kathy. That’s one problem in the marriage of Black and Birchfield, not helped any by Black’s friendship with Bert’s twin brother, Snake.
The other problem is their respective employers. Kathy is working for Senator Sheffield’s re-election campaign. Sheffield is Washington’s incumbent Democratic senator, and a sharp thorn in Bush’s side. Kathy sees this as a crucial election. Unfortunately, Black has taken a job with Sheffield’s opponent, James Maddox.
Maddox is a former Seattle police officer who played the political game well. The Republicans have tapped him to challenge Sheffield after he had a successful career in the state legislature. Black owes him a favor from their days together with the Seattle Police. When Maddox asks Black to run security for his campaign, our hero can’t say no. For Kathy, it’s political. For Black, it’s personal.
It gets very personal, indeed, when the Sheffield campaign interrupts the couple’s vacation, asking that Kathy join the candidate for a stumping junket around Washington state. It’s as the staff is leaving for the trail that Sheffield’s plane nosedives into the Pacific Ocean, with Black watching from a park near the airport. From that point on, Black is despondent, and the formerly smart-ass P.I. becomes a bitter widower out for revenge.
Black is also tormented by Bert Slezak’s ramblings about government conspiracies -- how the man struggles to link the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks together with the (very real) airplane death in 2002 of U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and now Sheffield’s tragic demise. Bert’s theories become more and more outrageous, and yet his past (he’s ex-CIA) lends some authority to his strange accusations. However, Bert keeps changing his story; he alternates between suggesting that the U.S. government was behind Sheffield’s death, to blaming rogue agents or secret cabals of financial powerbrokers. It doesn’t help Bert’s credibility that he consistently lies to Black on a variety of matters. At one point, the P.I. is convinced that there really is a conspiracy, and that Bert Slezak is part of it. Snake, meanwhile, tries to be the voice of reason here. As Black struggles to deal with his grief, Snake doesn’t encourage the conspiracy explanations, but he does believe his twin brother was involved in the recent plane crash.
All of these questions and dead ends just serve to infuriate Black, until he learns who the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has sent to investigate Sheffield’s passing. Tim Hoagland also worked on the Wellstone crash, which seems promising. But when Black discovers that all is not kosher with Hoagland’s latest investigation, he actually starts to take Slezak’s ramblings seriously. Of course, the detective goes back and forth on whether Sheffield’s death and the apparent end of his own wife’s life were parts of some grand conspiracy, or whether the sitting senator’s GOP opponent, Maddox, was behind it all.
Over the course of Cape Disappointment (which takes its name from a headland at the mouth of the Columbia River) it becomes obvious that a scheme of some sort resulted in Kathy Birchfield’s loss. Whether it’s an extension of some of the more bizarre 9/11 theories, or simply someone trying to get Sheffield out of the way, remains a question right up to the very end. We never really find out. Doing so would actually ruin the book. Thomas Black is unhinged, disoriented and scrambling to put his reality back together. Never mind whether George W. Bush murdered Black’s wife.
This is a truly bizarre novel, in that the narrative is pretty fractured in the beginning. It shifts directions amid the sort of half-awake haze that Thomas Black functions in after the gym explosion. You get bits and pieces of what’s going on, only to have author Emerson snatch the reader away to a different point in his story. Slowly, the narrative settles down and things come into focus. It’s actually a terrific way to tell a story, but not a technique I’d advise even the best writers to try without really working it out first. Dennis Lehane tried to do something similar with his 2003 standalone, Shutter Island, though Emerson is not striving for the same Twilight Zone-effect that Lehane accomplished.
Black portrays himself as your typical cynical, smart-aleck gumshoe, though he relates various incidents throughout this story that show he’s not as funny as he thinks he is. However, this is not a P.I. story, per se. It’s a political thriller, and Emerson leaves no doubt as to where his politics are, without banging you over the head with them.
Cape Disappointment is a complex and somewhat unsettling yarn. It’s compelling reading, especially from an action standpoint, but you come away from it asking yourself a few questions you might wish you hadn’t. An excellent work, though not for the faint of heart. | March 2009
Jim Winter is a writer, reviewer and occasional comedian in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he does tech support for an insurance company. He’s a regular contributor to Crimespree and an occasional contributor to both The Rap Sheet and the comedy podcast The Awful Show. His short stories have appeared in Pulp Pusher, Spinetingler Magazine and Plots With Guns. Check out his blog, Edged in Blue. Winter lives with his wife, Juanita, and stepson, A.J.