Stevens has written a grippingly sinister murder mystery that oozes menace and violence. Reach the Shining River captures the deeply corrupt and racist atmosphere of the 1930s, creating a feeling of dread and fear for the characters. This is a fight where the good guys are vastly outnumbered and out gunned and looking the wrong way at the wrong person can get you killed. Behind the veneer of polite, civilised conversation, the golf club drinks parties and the sumptuous elegance is a rotten core, a canker. The question is, is it so embedded in the daily life of the city as to be immovable? There’s a conspiracy at the heart of this thriller but it’s not that simple, all motives are suspect and even those trying to do good have their limits. There are echoes here of the political shenanigans of All The King’s Men, the conspiracy at the heart of Chinatown, and the real life story of Louisiana governor Huey Long. It’s a bleak vision of the segregated society, greed and economic despair that rings very true. Reaching the Shining River is superbly plotted and suspenseful, this novel is haunting and chilling. When a black man is murdered we see the value white society places on that man’s life.
Kansas City, 1935, even though the Volstead Act has been repealed and prohibition ended two years earlier, liquor distribution in the city is still controlled by the Italian mob. The police, from the commissioner down, are getting a cut of the gambling action, prostitution, drugs and the numbers racket. A few rich white men get richer, even in hard times. Boss Pendergast controls the legislature, he owns enough politicians to dictate to the state and kiss off the federal authorities. Against this backdrop, there’s only one thing worse than being a dirt poor white person and that’s being a dirt poor black person. Not a drop of the New Deal aid, following the financial crash, has made it to the Negro part of town. The tone of the novel is beautifully reinforced by the painful and poetic lyrics of the blues that infuse this gritty noir, underlining the prejudice and corruption of the times.
Sunday morning and eleven-year-old Wardell comes across the body of a “coloured” man, just like him, just outside town. The battered corpse is lying face down in the mud between the Missouri River and the rail track. Wardell runs to the Negro district to tell them what he’s seen. Mr Watkins knows it’s no easy matter reporting such a death. An hour later he returns with a white police officer who makes Wardell take him to the body. He takes the boy back to town but he threatens him before he drops him off. Wardell best forget what he saw if he knows what’s good for him and his family.
Emmett Whelan and his wife Fay haven’t been close since the miscarriage, the old resentments about Emmett not being part of the right set resurface. Fay relies on Daddy, Lloyd Perkins, for her spending money. He and his brother Robert are big men in this city, whereas Emmett is a poorly paid Jackson County Assistant Prosecutor. Lloyd has some people he wants his son-in-law to meet, distinguished gentlemen of the golf club, they have a proposal for Emmett.
The dead man, Eddie Sloane, didn’t show for work at the Sunset Club on Saturday night so Arlene sang with Otis on piano. Arlene and Eddie have been lovers for two years now. When she eventually reports him missing the police don’t want to know, won’t even take a report. Even when his body turns up Detective Timmins, in charge of the case, does nothing. There are people in the black community who won’t let the death of another black man just slide. The Friendship Brotherhood and Eddie’s lover Arlene hire a PI, a white detective from Chicago, to investigate.
Lloyd Perkins and his business chums talk about reform to Emmett, find out who killed Eddie Sloane. The city needs a clean up, it would be good for them and good for the prosecutor that could bring it about – Fay would respect that. Eddie was killed inside city limits, so as a county prosecutor Emmett would have to tread carefully but someone needs to conduct a proper investigation. Roddy Hudson, state prosecutor and the FBI are still angry with Kansas City for not cooperating on law enforcement and the New Deal, they will help.
Emmett brings in an old friend, a former detective, to investigate. The autopsy shows that Eddie was beaten badly then shot three times, one in the head – police style. He stepped on the wrong toes, didn’t pay a debt or was just on the wrong place. Emmett, Arlene and her son Wardell are drawn deeper into a world of dirty cops, racism, corruption and personal danger. The people they are up against have no morals, they will stop at nothing.
Stevens’ powerful evocation of the shameful segregated world that is pre-war Missouri is a classy conspiracy thriller. An intelligent novel that twists your gut. In the spirit of the best American noir.
Paul Burke 5/4
Reach the Shining River by Kevin Stevens
Betimes Books 9780992655259 pbk Apr 2014