Mean Streets, Meaningful Start

By Patrick Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, April 20, 2009


By Peter de Jonge

Harper. 275 pp. $25.99

Peter de Jonge is best known for having co-written three of James Patterson's bestsellers, but we are going to forgive him that, for two reasons. First, because it is an inconvenient but inescapable fact that writers must eat, a necessity that can lead us into alliance with all manner of dubious characters. Second, although de Jonge co-wrote such truly dreadful works as "The Beach House" -- which I remember as the literary equivalent of a kidney stone -- he now proves, with his first solo novel, that he can write first-rate crime fiction.

"Shadows Still Remain" is essentially the story of two women: 19-year-old Francesca Pena, who is tortured to death in its opening pages, and NYPD Detective Darlene O'Hara, who becomes obsessed with finding the killer. Pena, despite poverty and a drug-addicted father, has made her way to NYU on a track scholarship and been embraced by the school's most fashionable crowd. But early on Thanksgiving, after drinking with her rich friends in a downtown bar, she heads home alone, only to be abducted and cruelly killed.

Detective O'Hara is "thirty-four, with wavy red hair, raw, translucent Irish skin, that even in late November is sprinkled with freckles." She's at present without a fellow, however, having quit a fireman because "he was kind of a mess and his lips spent more time attached to his bong than her." She's a good cop but the kind who fights with her superiors and drinks far too much. The great love of her life is her 18-year-old son, Axl Rose O'Hara, the product of a youthful indiscretion, whom she named for the frontman of Guns N' Roses.

O'Hara soon discovers that Pena, the sexy and popular scholarship student, had a secret life, one that leads the detective into some of Manhattan's foulest corners. The book is alive with the sounds and smells and sins of New York. Here's O'Hara contemplating a housing project: "Facing the projects and their captive populace of thousands are a nasty little Chinese restaurant, a Western Union that cashes child-support payments and a liquor store named Liquor Store, with more bulletproof glass than the Popemobile."

De Jonge's New York is not a wonderful town. He shows us the addicts, tattoo parlors, strip clubs, escort services and the men who frequent them. Meeting a junkie and her young daughters, "O'Hara sees that the squandered beauty of the mother has already started to bloom in her girls." A church "is a crucifix-topped A-frame with the spiritual gravitas of an International House of Pancakes." Watching TV, O'Hara realizes "the soaps are like porn without sex." A strip club offers "a murky interior laid out like the rungs of hell." O'Hara and her loyal police partner "are deeply familiar with the toxic ruts of each other's dysfunctional lives."

Because the Pena murder attracts major media attention, O'Hara is forced off the case by a publicity-seeking superior who is 6-foot-5 and who weighs nearly 400 pounds and thus "resides ambiguously in that gray area between fat and big." When he tries to pin the murder on a young man O'Hara thinks is innocent, she risks her career by pursuing her own unauthorized investigation. What she finds -- the truth of Francesca Pena's death -- is about as heartbreaking a story as one could imagine. De Jonge tries to lighten the mood by suggesting that sobriety and romance might lie ahead for his heroine, but it remains a stunningly dark story, one that recalls Ed McBain at his most bleak. De Jonge took his title, "Shadows Still Remain," from a Guns N' Roses song, and it's apt, because, even after the case is solved, the shadows -- lust, greed, cruelty, madness -- that led to Pena's death still darken the city, as they always will. We only hope that the intrepid, all-too-human O'Hara will return to joust with them anew.

First novels must have faults, of course -- otherwise reviewers aren't doing their jobs -- and this one has a few. The first time de Jonge shows us a "piece-of-crap Impala," it's vivid writing, but the fifth or sixth time he uses the phrase, it's just tiresome. It's okay when he has a character turn up wearing "an awful plaid suit," but someone should have edited out the references to the same "pathetic" and "ridiculous" suit that follow. We might also have been spared the highly detailed description of the torture performed on Pena. And even O'Hara, with her smart mouth, should have more sense than to tell a reporter she wouldn't mind being a stripper.

At the end of the novel, as all the pieces begin to fall into place, you realize how cleverly -- some might say slickly -- it has been plotted. But slick can be good, and this remains tough, skillful, sophisticated entertainment. When the crime-fiction aficionados set out to pick their best first novel of the year, "Shadows Still Remain" will be a contender.

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