Maine crime novelist Gerry Boyle is shooting blanks. In Port City Black and White, the second book in his Brandon Blake mystery series, the prose pops but the plot points miss the mark.
Boyle made a name for himself with the Jack McMorrow series of crime mysteries, about a reporter turned detective. He cranked out eight McMorrow books between 1993 and 2004, then went on hiatus for half a decade. He returned in ’09 with Port City Shakedown, the first Blake book, then added a ninth McMorrow mystery, Damaged Goods, last year.
Boyle’s writing has the clipped, punchy pace of high-caliber crime-thrillers, but Black and White reeks of burn-out. The author weaves some compelling threads through the first 250 pages — a stolen baby, a missing Sudanese teen, a shady Caribbean restaurateur — then abruptly and unconvincingly ties them up in the last 15. The ending will make you want to throw this book against a wall, rough it up the way Blake, a rookie cop in the Portland P.D., manhandles a mean drunk in the Old Port.
Blake is young, in his early 20s, and he takes his new job to heart. He’s a bit too gung-ho, but not rogue enough to justify the repercussions Boyle makes him face.
The action starts when Blake and his training officer, a lesbian triathlete named Kat, respond to a noise complaint at a crackhead’s apartment in Parkside. The addict, a young mother named Chantelle, is crashed out on a couch. Her infant son is missing.
“Get up,” Brandon said. “Get off your lazy, drugged-out ass and show me the baby.”
Chantelle stared at him, muttered as she started to get herself up.
“Don’t have to get all wound up, Blake. Not my fault if — ”
“It is your fault,” Brandon said. “You’re his mother. Your responsibility.”
A major plot point turns on this scene. We’re led to believe that those few stern words prompt Chantelle to — spoiler alert! — jump off the Casco Bay Bridge, setting off a series of troublesome consequences. Kat admonishes him for crossing the line, and the press and Chantelle’s loved ones blame him for her death.
Blake was orphaned when his mother abandoned him and then died trying to make a drug deal, so he’s supposedly extra sensitive about Chantelle’s poor parenting skills. Still, the lecture he delivers hardly constitutes police misconduct.
That’s just one of several developments that badly strain credulity. The fate of the missing Sudanese teen is beyond far-fetched. And when Chantelle’s baby finally turns up, his whereabouts are so obvious that suddenly it does seem like Blake’s at fault — for not finding him the same night he disappeared.
Boyle doesn’t play it that way. He lets Blake get hammered unjustly for all sorts of stuff. Yet when it turns out the rookie and his department actually blew it, there are no consequences. The book’s over.
Boyle, a former reporter and columnist for the Morning Sentinel in Waterville, lives in China, Maine. The Portland in Port City Black and White resembles the impression of the city other Mainers have formed after watching too many TV news reports about crime here. The sidewalks are crawling with drunks, punks, druggies and nut-jobs. There are biker gangs, Jamaican drug gangs, and thugged-out African refugees who want to be gang-bangers.
Portlanders will find it fun to follow Blake as he tracks bad guys through our neighborhoods. Boyle’s descriptions of the city and its denizens verge on caricature, but then again, cops see a different Portland than the rest of us do. If only the rest of the story had a shred of plausibility.
— Chris Busby
For more on the author, visit gerryboyle.com.