Although there’s a recently-published edition on offer, Mission Flats is actually author William’s Landay’s debut crime thriller and it first saw light of day well over a decade ago. It comes heaped with praise from big-name reviewers and won a couple of major awards – and is certainly a cut above the average modern American police procedural. Landay obviously aimed at the literary end of the spectrum, and attempted to blend a pacey page-turner, brimming with plots twists and artful authorial deception, with more meaningful debate on policing, personal and social issues. Mission Flats aims high, then.
It’s also a curious mixture. The back-cover blurb suggests a bleak, backwoods murder investigation set in small-town Maine, where the summers are short and the introverted permanent population hunker down in the mountain forests to endure each bitter winter. Indeed, that’s the atmosphere evoked by the first few chapters.
Then suddenly Mission Flats jumps tracks and goes wildly into The Wire territory. We’re thrust into the heart of the narcotics scene on the projects in Boston, where there’s a thin line between confidential informants and corrupt police, and where knocking on a door during a drug bust can get you seriously dead before the SWAT team can respond. The majority of the plot takes place in Boston, where the young ‘Chief’ Truman from out of town neatly adopts the traditional role of the rookie detective, being mentored by an admirably cranky retired Boston officer.
Landay wittily plays with genre conventions and our expectations, introducing layers of ambiguous characters. His writing is thoughtful, scattered with observations on the nature of loss, criminality and culpability. Truman is a fascinating character who initially appears to be something of a blank slate – bereaved by the recent death of his mother – but whose ‘outsider’ status allows him to make insightful statements on both urban Boston and rural New England. He’s from neither and fits in quite nowhere.
Some of the comments about accents and pronunciation are cripplingly (and unexpectedly) funny. In Mission Flats, the dialogue can turn from deathly tense to dry wit quicker than you can rack a round.
However, this is also quite obviously an early novel. In places – especially in the crucial conclusion – the pace suddenly stalls and the prose ambles along in over-extended exposition and authorial self-indulgence. The narrative suffers from occasional lulls where my attention wandered; not quite enough to consider putting it down, but bumps in what should have been a smooth road of relentless acceleration. Can’t fault the plotting, mind, which caught me slack-jawed more than once.
All of which led me to investigate what the author has done since, which turns out to be two more thrillers, one historical and one legal. I’ve bought both of them, and will be intrigued to see how the potential displayed in Mission Flats develops…
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Mission Flats by William Landay is available in paperback and ebook formats