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City of Brick and Shadow
Tyrus Books, 2014
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer
Well, I can certainly say I got more than I paid for. I scooped this one up for a quarter at the Association of Writers and Publishers' 2015 conference, at Tyrus' "pay-whatever-you-want" table, figuring this variety of book gamble would be fun and low-stakes. Based on the results, I wouldn't be opposed to reading what Tim Wirkus publishes in the future. However, I can't say I'm stoked about the guy either. I'm not the biggest reader of genre fiction, and while there's a lot of subversion of genre fiction in here, it still fits squarely in the mystery/noir genre. Probably more noir than mystery, since it violates a few of the mystery's cardinal rules. Its subversive side has gotten the goat of a few Goodreads reviewers who enjoy more traditional mysteries, so if you're into the conventional mystery, approach with caution.
However, I'm coming at this as not a mystery reader but a literary fiction fan, albeit also an open-minded literary fiction fan who sometimes likes a book that rolls on an interesting premise. The blurbs all over the jacket praise this book for being unique, which is true to a degree. The main plot concerns two Mormon missionaries positioned in a rough Latin American neighborhood who investigate the disappearance of a man who they baptized, while the subplot is about a mysterious criminal responsible for making the neighborhood violent. I found the criminal's arc compelling - he evolves from a standard goon to a brutal philosopher/empiricist - but the main plot had its issues. Putting two missionaries at the forefront of this sort of story is an original idea, but the missionaries default to archetypes. Elder Toronto establishes himself as the cowboy cop while Elder Schwartz becomes his more conservative partner. The two are ironbound in their roles. So it becomes like a buddy cop movie but with buddy missionaries, and Wirkus could've done more with that dynamic. There's tension between the two, and if the conflict had been allowed to build, we might have seen more of the characters' personalities and motives. As of now, the conflict between the two stays in first gear, so you're pretty much at the mercy of the narrative's momentum, which is fairly slow but does reach a pretty good pitch as it winds toward an ambiguous conclusion.
Where Wirkus does succeed here, besides in the well-turned subplot, is his construction of the world. You really do feel the "City of Brick and Shadow," with its myriad activity and its hundreds of possible mysteries and its bizarre geography, topography and mythology. It's a great setting for anything noir. Plus Toronto and Schwartz's interactions, underutilized or not, still sometimes yield entertaining results. See the running gag of no one being able to understand Schwartz's Portuguese. Since this is only Wirkus' first book and since he does a lot well here, I'm certainly not about to count the guy out. But he has got to work on moving those characters outside of genre-stock. It's an entertaining debut that could see for more meat.
Out of 10: 7.5, though probably more in the 9 range for noir devotees.