The Ways of the Dead

By Neely Tucker

(Viking, $27.95, 288 pages)

Who is this author?

Neely Tucker is a seventh-generation Mississippian who was the top journalism student in his class at the University of Mississippi. He went on to a stellar career as a reporter, working for Florida Today, Gannett News Service, the Miami Herald, and the Detroit Free Press, for whom he ran the paper’s European Bureau in 1993. He’s been at the Washington Post for the past 14 years and was a foreign correspondent in Zimbabwe, where he and his wife adopted a daughter (they also have 4-year-old twin sons). Publishers Weekly chose his 2004 memoir, Love in the Driest Season, as one of the Best 25 Books of the Year. His reporting has taken him to more than 60 countries or territories around the world. The family has a big Rottweiler named Sully, which, probably not coincidentally, is also the name of the hero of his new novel, a journalist investigating a murder in Washington, D.C.

What is this book about?

The daughter of a Washington judge is found dead in a slum and three black youths are accused, but a veteran (and hard-drinking, of course) reporter looking into the case believes the killing is connected instead to several under-investigated cold cases and the disappearance of a student. This first in what is planned as a series of crime novels is based on an actual case in the 1990s known as the Princeton Place murders. The city wants a quick conviction, but Sully, despite pressure from the government, cops and his own bosses, just wants the truth. That he may be risking his own life to reveal it just adds to the tension and excitement.

Why you’ll like it:

It takes a veteran newsman to conjure up a credible veteran newsman, and Tucker has the chops to do it with style as well as substance. He also captures the days before the Internet began sapping the strength and power of print. Readers of his work for the Washington Post’s Sunday magazine know that he is an exhilarating wordsmith, and if you are not already familiar with his work, you will enjoy making the acquaintance of this captivating writer.

What others are saying:

Booklist’s starred review says:  “Sarah Reese was murdered in a bad neighborhood in Washington, D.C., while waiting for her mother to pick her up from dance class. She was not the first girl to die in the area, but she was the first white girl, setting off a storm of media attention. Three young African American men had been taunting her before she ran off, and they were easy arrests for the police anxious to solve the case. Reporter Sully Carter, however, pieces together—based on the number of young women missing and dead in the area—a more likely scenario involving a serial killer. The police and Carter’s bosses at the paper don’t agree, but he sticks to his guns and does his own investigation, fighting authority all the way. If this story sounds familiar, it should—it’s based on the Princeton Place murders that occurred in Washington in the late 1990s. By placing the novel in that same era, when newspapers, rather than the Internet, were still the primary source for news, journalist Tucker is free to use the newsroom as the focus for his story. He has a great protagonist, too, in Carter, a hard-bitten reporter carrying plenty of baggage—just right for a series lead. With the emphasis on gritty urban life in a city rife with racism and blight, the novel evokes the Washington, D.C., of George Pelecanos. This riveting debut novel should spawn a terrific series.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “Foreign correspondent Tucker uses the real-life Princeton Place murders in Washington, D.C., during the 1990s as background for his exciting fiction debut. The murder of Sarah Reese, the 15-year-old daughter of a politically connected Washington judge, turns unwanted attention to the predominately black neighborhood where she was killed. But newspaper reporter Sully Carter sees a larger story about several missing area women and a murdered prostitute. Sully turns to neighborhood crime boss Sly Hastings for help when politicians, the police, and his own editors don’t care about these cold cases, which he believes are linked to the teenager’s death. The quick arrest of three young black men for Sarah’s murder makes Sully suspicious. The brisk plot is punctuated by an insightful view of journalism and manipulative editors, shady politicians, and apathetic cops, while also showing residents working to create a better neighborhood. Readers will be pleased that Tucker leaves room for a sequel.”

A starred review from Kirkus says: “Clinton-era Washington, D.C., provides the squalid, menacing backdrop for this crisp, crafty and sharply observed debut by a seasoned reporter. As the curtain’s about to fall on the 20th century, Sully Carter, a one-time war correspondent weighed down with physical and psychological scars, finds himself working the crime beat in Washington, D.C., at a time when criminal behavior is all but taken for granted at opposite ends of the sociopolitical spectrum. For all of Sully’s battle-hardened professionalism, his bosses don’t think he’s quite stable—or sober—enough to cover the murder of a teenage girl near a convenience store, especially since the victim is the daughter of a high-profile federal judge with whom Sully’s had (let’s say) negative history. Nevertheless, Sully works as if he’s in a war zone and eventually connects this murder with a series of cold cases involving dead and missing young women in the same at-risk neighborhood. Tucker, a 25-year newspaper veteran who’s spent most of his career at the Washington Post, writes with rueful authority and caustic familiarity about the District’s criminal and working classes as well as the dreary anxiety of working for a fin-de-siècle big-city newspaper. Along with an ear for inner-city argot almost as finely tuned as those of Elmore Leonard and fellow D.C. crime writer George Pelacanos, Tucker has a knack for ingenious plotting that jolts his narrative into unexpected directions. The shocks resound with acrid, illuminating insights into the District’s nettlesome intersections of race and class at the hinge of the millennium. Rich yet taut description, edgy storytelling, rock-and-rolling dialogue, and a deeply flawed but compelling hero add up to a luminous first novel.”

Library Journal’s starred review says: “Sarah Reese, the white teenage daughter of a prominent judge, is found murdered behind a convenience store in Washington, DC. Three young black guys are fingered for the murder simply because they had pestered her earlier. Thus begins a late 1990s-set, headlines-grabbing story that Sully Carter, a Mississippi-born veteran reporter, is covering. Although former Bosnian war correspondent Sully suffers from PTSD and alcoholism, he still knows how to go behind enemy lines. By using a local “warlord,” Sully worms his way deeper into the truth of this girl’s death and how it connects with a disturbing pattern of unsolved murders or disappearances of neighborhood women. Trouble is Sully may have set himself up for a fall in the process. VERDICT Journalist-turned-novelist Tucker has crafted an addictive, twisty debut, proving that crimes involving politics and sex can still surprise and thrill us. The slightly detached and cynical air will resonate with George Pelecanos readers and yet there’s a whiff of Elmore Leonard, too.

“Setting his tale in the 1990s . . . gives Tucker the chance to show how much newspapers have changed. The 24-hour Internet news cycle hasn’t yet taken root, tomorrow’s front page is still more important than getting the story online immediately and good reporters are dependent on door knocks, land lines and library research rather than e-mail, cellphones and Google. Tucker pulls off a neat, double-twist ending . . . There’s a lot to like in Tucker’s storytelling,” says The Washington Post, where Tucker works.

 When is it available?

This gritty crime drama can be found at the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Blue Hills and Mark Twain branches.

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