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By Thomas Kaufman

Minotaur Books, 2010 ($24.99)
ISBN-10: 0-312-60730-X
ISBN-13: 978-0-312-60730-2

Reviewed by Katherine Petersen

Thomas Kaufman, winner of the PWA’s first novel contest, gives readers a PI with a unique background with his protagonist Willis Gidney. Gidney grew up in the Washington, D.C. juvenile system, on the streets and in and out of more foster homes than he could likely count. A talented charmer and con, he had a booming empire by age 12 when he met police Captain Shadrack Davies. Shad became one of his foster fathers and took him along on police calls, instilling enough good values in the young lawbreaker to let in a smidgeon of guilt about his behavior.

Now a struggling PI with a day job, his best friend Steps Jackson asks Gidney to track down a daughter he just learned about who was born 25 years ago. Gidney searches the woman’s last apartment, where he finds two punks squabbling, holes in the ceiling and windows that look to have been covered by trash bags. Soon after that, the head honcho of a security firm tells him to stay away from Congressman Jason McHugh. And pretty soon, Gidney may be in over his head with a case morphing from the search for a missing person to include drugs, money laundering, a two-faced Congressman, Superfund sites, a multi-national cooperation and Gidney in danger of losing his life. And then there’s Lilly, the cute, computer programmer.

Gidney may have grown up in foster care, but he’s still a likeable, funny and charming guy. Oh, he has flaws too, never fear. He’s quite caught up in identity, who he is and how he got there and arrives at some conclusions by novel’s end. Other characters struggle with hiding their identities as well, including Lilly who disguises her model figure under loose, ill-fitting clothes or other people who have more emotional issues with who they are. It adds even more depth to a story rife with colorful characters, a complex plot, humor (Martin Luther King turning over in his grave when a right-wing politician concludes a speech with "We shall overcome" comes to mind), and a protagonist I hope to see in future novels.

Kaufman uses well-placed flashbacks to introduce Gidney’s past, akin to a story within a story, and they’re the right length to give us details without losing track of the present-day tale. It’s easy to see from his evocative descriptions that he works in film. Granted, he places emphasis on the visual details, but he doesn’t neglect the other senses. Kaufman is articulate and clear in his writing, never getting too bogged down in detail and has a knack for snappy dialogue. For fans of the PI novel, he’s definitely one to watch.

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