Onyx reviews: Drink the Tea by Thomas
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
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
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.
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.
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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