Conway Sax is an auto mechanic and a recovering alcoholic. He has a strong attachment to his special group The Barnburners who are all recovering alcoholics. They hold a "meeting after the meeting" and share a special bond among themselves. So when Savannah Kane, a former Barnburner, walks back into Conway's life with a problem, he feels he has no choice but to help her. "Once a Barnburner, always a Barnburner."
The problem Savannah "Savvy" Kane needs help with is less her problem and more Bert Saginaw's problem. Saginaw is running for Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor and his ticket with favored Gubernatorial candidate Betsy Tinker seems a shoe-in. However, there's a threat of blackmail that could derail the whole election. Saginaw wants Sax to put an end to the blackmail and he's willing to pay substantially for this service. But the payout isn't necessary when Savvy Kane is found dead and another of Sax's Barnburner buddies is found assaulted and left for dead. Sax will find out who is behind all of this, even if it costs him his family.
Steve Ulfelder was recently nominated for Best First Edgar for his debut novel PURGATORY CHASM. I haven't read PURGATORY CHASM yet, and it didn't prevent me from thoroughly enjoying THE WHOLE LIE.
Ulfelder's hero does possess one of the stereotypical crime protagonist's characteristics: he's a recovering alcoholic. But Ulfelder takes a fresh approach with his character. Instead of the alcohol being Conway Sax's hang-up and all of the issues that drove him to drink in the first place, it's his connection to other recovering alcoholics that's important. Conway Sax isn't out to hang a shingle and start detecting. He will help those who are part of his inner circle. That's it. Otherwise, he just wants to be an auto mechanic and help raise his girlfriend's daughters.
THE WHOLE LIE is full of fascinating characters beyond his protagonist. Randall is Conway's buddy and "partner in crime." Randall also happens to be the son of Conway's probation officer. He's smart, witty and wears a prosthetic leg because he lost his limb to a bomb he encountered while serving in the military. Conway's girlfriend, Charlene, is also a recovering alcoholic and she pulled herself out of the gutter to become a successful and driven business woman. But one of Ulfelder's most stellar characters, in my opinion, is Charlene's daughter, Sophie. She doesn't have a huge role, but it's a powerful one, nonetheless. She reflects the damage we can do to those around us when we get too caught up in ourselves.
The plot of THE WHOLE LIE is rather timely with the presidential race in full swing. And the stark contrast between the haves and the have nots plays a central issue in the novel's layers of conflict - the 1% anyone?
I have to give Ulfelder extra kudos because Elyria, Ohio, (my hometown) comes into play in THE WHOLE LIE, as does Oberlin College. But the majority of the novel plays out in the various segments of Boston and its surrounding areas.
If you have to read THE WHOLE LIE in multiple sittings, you'll likely struggle to put it down and rush to get back to it as quickly as you can. Add Ulfelder to my must-read list. I'm looking forward to hanging out with Conway Sax and friends again.
THE WHOLE LIE was released earlier this month in hardcover (ISBN: 978-0312604547) from St. Martin's Minotaur and is also available in audio from Audible, narrated by Mark Boyett.