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Onyx reviews: Drink the Tea by Thomas Kaufman

Out of the box, Drink the Tea comes with a strong pedigree. The author is an award-winning film director and cameraman, which gives him a strong visual eye. His book won the Private Eye Writers of America first novel competition and attracted blurbs from the likes of George Pelecanos. Does it live up to the hype?

Mostly. The book, set in Washington, D.C. (hence the Pelecanos connection), has a very strong sense of place. Because of its political underpinnings, the setting is something of a necessity, but it doesn't feel gratuitous. The author clearly knows the city inside and outside the beltway, from the touristy, political areas to the rough and dangerous neighborhoods.

The protagonist is Willis Gidney, a man with a difficult childhood who doesn't know his real identity or exactly how old he is. His name is cobbled together from those of two police officers. He spent most of his youth homeless, in foster care or in a Dickensian orphanages. He's supposed to work at a vinyl record shop, though over the course of Drink the Tea he doesn't make it to work once. He's also a part-time private investigator, though he doesn't have much experience, nor an office to attract customers. Most of the time he handles divorce cases and delivers subpoenas.

The fact that he's working on the "right" side of the law is as surprising to him as to anyone, given his upbringing. As a child, he learned how to lie, cheat and scam people. Some of these skills are useful for an investigator. However, his moral compass seems to have swung away from a life of crime, mostly because of the guidance of his last foster father, a police officer who Gidney ultimately betrayed.

The case he takes at the beginning of Drink the Tea is innocent enough. His long-time friend, jazz musician Steps Jackson, recently discovered that has a daughter, the product of a brief, torrid relationship twenty-five years ago. Steps wants to do the right thing by his daughter, but he doesn't know her name. Gidney agrees to find her, little realizing the convoluted and dangerous trail he is embarking on.

Getting the name of this putative daughter proves easy enough, until Gidney's search triggers alarm bells that ring all the way to the political stratosphere. His investigation comes to the attention of a Blackwater-like security firm and a politician with lofty aspirations. After he pokes around at the only address he has for the daughter, he sets into motion events that will end tragically for the jazz musician's former lover, who has connections to the upper echelons in D.C.

Though Drink the Tea could easily have been purely a noir novel—there's no shortage of violence, and Gidney has ample reason to be a dark, morose character—Kaufman has chosen a different course. Gidney is a wisecracking smart ass, somewhere between the glib Spencer from Robert B. Parker and an over-the-top character from Carl Hiaasen. For the most part this approach works, though it occasionally dilutes some of the more serious situations.

Gidney acquires a sidekick along the way, Lilly McClellan, a former model who has chosen to hide her good looks with piercings and baggy clothes. She's a whiz with computers and a reasonable foil for Gidney's wisecracking. He also has a sympathetic D.C. lieutenant on his side—especially when he becomes a suspect in a murder—and knows a resourceful homeless veteran who understands how to create diversions. Among his circle of friends: a lesbian couple with a daughter who has a habit of sticking random objects in his pockets.

Kaufman weaves the contemporary story together with the backstory of Gidney's childhood, motivating some of the detective's questionable actions, especially pertaining to the child of a murder victims who would have been put into the child welfare system if not for his intervention. The complicated plot involves a scheme to convert legal hemp into marketable marijuana to fund political campaigns. The chemistry is a bit wonky, and the resolution of the book relies overmuch on coincidence to be entirely kosher. Still, this first novel is a deft character study that shows promise for future installments. 

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