Polis Books, 304 pages, paperback, $12.22
I’ve recently developed a very strong liking for novels in which the main character is a journalist. A few recent releases have helped me cope with my need for this kind of narratives, but there’s one novel that almost singlehandedly pushed me over the edge and which has done more than any other book not only in terms of satisfying my craving but also in getting me hooked on a journalist-as-main-character series: Alex Segura’s Silent City, the first book in the Pete Fernandez trilogy.
Pete Fernandez is about to lose his job in middle-management at a Miami newspaper. Between that, the fact that his fiancée left him, and the sudden death of his father, Pete finds himself devoid of passion for his work, with no prospects on the horizon, and hitting the bottle too often. Then something out of the ordinary happens: a co-worker he barely knows asks him to investigate the disappearance of his daughter. Pete’s father was a great cop, but such things don’t get passed down in DNA, and what starts as a seemingly simple task soon turns into a dangerous, complicated, dark narrative about drugs, a serial killer for hire, secret agendas, and trips down memory lane. As Pete stumbles thought all of it on neither side of the law, he’s forced to deal with the situation, himself, his past, and the large shoes left by his father.
You know that wonderful thing that James Ellroy did for Los Angeles and authors like Lawrence Block and Hubert Selby, Jr. did for New York City? Well, Segura does the same thing for Miami, and that’s a statement I’m not afraid to make despite only being halfway done with the Pete Fernandez trilogy at the time of writing this. Silent City is packed with tight dialogue, personal tragedy, violence, bars, and everything else that makes noir one of the most entertaining genres out there, but those elements come together in Miami, and the city is much more than a background or a stage in Segura’s capable hands. In this novel, Miami is a perennially shifting signifier of a city, a monster that can look very pretty one second and devour you the next. The beach and the heat are there, but so are the gangs, the drugs, the underworld, and the seediest parts of it, and it all makes for a very compelling read.
The second element worth mentioning in Silent City is that Segura is familiar with the tropes of crime fiction and doesn’t try too hard to steer clear of them. Instead, he fully engages them in new ways that feel fresh, ways that make it feel like he worked hard at making those tropes work for him and not the other way around. Ultimately, however, his knowledge of what makes a crime novel works goes above and beyond tropes and, when mixed with his writing chops, results in a strong, gripping narrative that doesn’t shy away from the grittiest elements of noir:
“Pete stepped gingerly toward the body. He had no sense of when the man had been murdered, but the kill had been messy. There was blood all over the floor and couch. From what little Pete knew about forensics, he could tell the murder weapon hadn’t been a run-of-the-mill handgun. Probably a shotgun. He looked up at the ceiling and noticed a hole—the result of another, errant shot. Pete looked at the man’s hair and what little remained of his face…”
Silent City is full of mystery and death, but also of shattered pasts, living ghosts, and lost friendships. This is a novel that engages with classic sleuth narratives and comes out of that feeling new and unique. Perhaps most impressive than that is the fact that this is a debut novel, and one that began what has so far turned out to be a superb series. I’m currently reading the second book in the series, Down the Darkest Street, which I’ll also review here, and I strongly recommend you get started with this one as soon as you can. Segura is here to stay, and I’m happy to be along for that ride.