Author: Andrew Grant
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Price: $27.00 (Hardcover)
“False Friend” is the second in the Detective Cooper Devereaux series. In what seems an unlikely coincidence, the author Andrew Grant was born and raised in Birmingham, England, and worked in British theatre and Information Technology before turning to fiction. A literary conference took him to Birmingham, Alabama, inspiring him to set his Devereaux novels there. These gritty novels are urban rather than agrarian, set in Birmingham but barely southern. In “False Friends” the action moves to City Hall, Sloss Furnace, and out to Homewood, but it could just as well have been set in Detroit. There are place settings but very little of the flavor of Birmingham; it is used like a stage set. Likewise, there is no particular use of language, dialect, foodways, race or religion that grounds this novel in the American South. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is so.
In the first novel, “False Positive,” we become acquainted with the mostly unlikeable Detective Devereaux. He has had a tough life, was orphaned early, or so it seems, and raised in unpleasant foster homes from which he ran away often.
As a young man, Devereaux was, essentially, a gangster, but managed, through luck and the help of some very understanding police officers, to get into the Birmingham Police Academy and is now a successful, if unconventional and violent, detective.
Also, Devereaux had managed to tuck away a “giant heap of cash” he mostly stole from crooks, and then invested.
We are told, perhaps to make us feel warmer towards him, that he has donated a portion of his stash to charities, but there are no details. Devereaux owns a deluxe penthouse in the downtown City Federal Building and drives a sapphire blue Porsche he races around Birmingham at 90 mph. When people notice how he lives, on a cop’s salary, they think he is dirty, but he isn’t—at least not any more.
Recently reunited with his partner, Alexandra, and their seven-year-old daughter, Nicole, he spends so little time with them that domestic happiness continues to elude him.
Restless, manic, irritable, Devereaux is hard to please. He takes Alexandra to a performance of “Les Misérables” but winds up miserable himself. He thinks: “This Valjean guy and his cronies wanted to go beyond some barricades? OK. But weren’t they the ones who’d built the barricades? Why pick that spot if they wanted to go past? Why not build the barricades farther away? And why stand around singing about their own lack of planning skills? What was the point in that?”
Likewise he believes the redecorated Alabama Theatre is grotesque. “The red and green octagons decorating the underneath of the long sweeping arches reminded him of an octopus’s tentacles, reaching round to grab him. And the broad illuminated dome set into the gilded ceiling made him feel like a flying saucer was hovering overhead, waiting to spirit him away. Or perhaps that was just wishful thinking.”
Escape from the theatre comes in the form of a call about an arson at Jones Valley High School. No one is hurt, but the public is seriously rattled when a second school, Inglenook School, is torched.
A task force is set up with the fire department investigators and the FBI. Who would set fire to schools? There is nothing to steal, no insurance payoff to hope for. Needless to say, Devereaux is always rogue, not a team player.
Devereaux, we learn, had been an unhappy student at these schools and believes, based on his experiences, the fires were set to obtain some kind of revenge.
As Grant introduces his characters, shifting from one to another in very short chapters, the reader feels something quite different from what one feels, say, in a novel by Agatha Christie. Looking at the suspects in a Christie, I usually think none of these—the colonel, the parson, the maiden aunt—is sick enough to have done the crime. In “False Friend,” several characters are sufficiently bent to draw attention to themselves.
Devereaux’s wife, an exhausted attorney, is perpetually unhappy, distraught, and drinks two bottles of wine a night, and his daughter, Nicole, who throws “spectacular tantrums,” garrotes her Barbie dolls and stabs them in the abdomen.
Diane McKinzie, local reporter, feels her career and journalism generally is doomed. She hurts herself, is hooked on vodka and pills, and her 15-year-old son, Daniel, is a nasty piece of work who believes he is a genius in the category of Einstein or Oppenheimer, his heroes. He is contemptuous of what he sees as his inferior teachers.
We meet a couple of Devereaux’s classmates from high school and they are strange, damaged people with axes to grind.
The action turns from unexplained arson to serial killings, cadaver mutilation and psychotic ceremonies involving absorbing power from the dead.
Some readers find Grant’s novels fast-paced, racy. Others think them chaotic, manic in their plot turns.
One thing is sure: Grant holds nothing back.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.