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Onyx reviews: Revolver by Duane Swierczynski

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 8/9/2016

Tolstoy once said that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. The Walczak family of Philadelphia has been mostly unhappy for the past fifty years, ever since officer Stan Walczak and his partner George Wildey were gunned down in a working class bar while waiting to meet with a snitch. The murders were never solved, and the crime inspired subsequent generations of Walczaks to become involved with law enforcement.

Revolver is set in three time periods: 1965, when the murders took place, 1995, when Stan's son Jim is a homicide detective and 2015, when Jim's adopted daughter Audrey is studying to be a CSI tech. Chapters cycle among these three timeframes like the cylinder on a revolver, allowing the different stories to develop in parallel. 

In 1965, Philadelphia was rife with racial tensions and riots. Stan Walczak gets a new, black partner after his previous partner is injured by a burning sofa thrown at the officers from a rooftop. Wildey is determined to find out who was responsible for the assault, taking the two beat cops on unauthorized stakeouts far from their assignments. Rumors spread of a plan to eradicate the city's blacks through tainted drugs and false flag operations. There are wolves, Wildey claims, and they are now running things. Walczak and Wildey are sticking their noses into dangerous territory, upsetting some very important and influential people.

In the 1995 story, Jim investigates the violent murder of a fact-checker for a trendy magazine in an affluent Philadelphia neighborhood. The case has an easy resolution and one that is far more complex, forcing Jim to examine his dedication to his profession and his family in equal measure. He's having a hard time striking a balance between work and family as it is. At the same time, he receives the unwelcome news that the man generally believed to be responsible for his father's murder has been released from prison, having served his time for another crime. Jim is determined to confront the man he thinks is the only person who knows exactly what happened in the bar that day and bring him to justice.

In 2015, Audrey returns to Philly from her self-imposed exile in Houston, where she is doing badly at school and in life in general. She has been estranged from her now-divorced parents and two older brothers for several years. She has copious tattoos, is on the verge of flunking out, and has a penchant for drinking Bloody Marys early in the day. She's in good company: her father has a serious drinking problem, and her brothers, both cops, are following him down the same path.

Her return is inspired by a fiftieth anniversary ceremony paying tribute to her grandfather's murder. She plans to get in and out quickly, but is inspired to apply modern forensic science to the unsolved crime, much to everyone's chagrin. No one wants her in Philadelphia and, more to the point, no one wants the old wound re-opened. After half a century, there are still people invested in having the case remain unsolved. She's an agent of chaos, a real firecracker, the book's shining star. In addition to the usual sources of information, she follows an edict from a John Cheever essay, which advocates simply going to the places where the story happened. She finds an unlikely ally in the guy who makes pizzas at the restaurant that now occupies the building where the shootings occurred. Her persistence eventually pays off, though the answers she gets lead in troubling directions. Her family is much more complicated than most people realize. 

In the grand tradition of Ross Macdonald, Audrey learns how the tentacles of the past and long-held secrets influence and infect everything, including the murder her father couldn't crack twenty years earlier. Swierczynski keeps this lean, mean novel moving along with short chapters and tantalizing hooks and clues. Readers navigate what could be a labyrinthine plot effortlessly with his self-assured control over how he doles out details and reveals long-hidden truths. 

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