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David Levien
City of the Sun
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2009

Doubleday / Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-385-52366-0
Publication Date: 02-26-2008
310 Pages; $24.95
Date Reviewed: 07-10-2009

Index:  Mystery  General Fiction

David Levien does not waste words. He doesn't waste plot strands, he doesn't pack his novel 'City of the Sun' with anything outside the raw story. Carefully crafted prose creates a crisp, memorable story of people good and bad, the choices they make and lives as they unfold. It's a memorable novel that you'll recall long after you've finished reading.

'City of the Sun' introduces readers first to the Gabriel family. Jamie Gabriel is just north of 12 years old, and he's got a paper route in a suburb of Indianapolis. Every morning, he's up at 5:30AM, on the road by 5:45AM, with a bicycle full of newspapers. One day he does not return. His parents, Carol and Paul are slowly hollowed out as the investigation goes nowhere, as their beloved son is transformed from a child into a statistic. The marriage falters, but fourteen months on, a sympathetic cop suggests they talk to Frank Behr, an ex-cop who now works on his own. He might be able to help them.

Levien's novel is written with such clarity and precision, it could almost be used as an instructional volume in a course on fiction. For me, at least, it was a slow-burner; instantly captivating, yet without the sort of "what's going to happen next" suspense that makes so many mysteries seem so vapid. In the opening sections, it's almost like a Greek tragedy, with an unerring and clear focus on creating characters we come to know intimately.

Frank Bear is an iconic figure. The ex-cop card, the big-guy card, the blunted social skills card and the tragic past card are all expertly laid down in a manner that makes readers both believe in him and like him at the same time. He's not perfect, by any means, but he might be about the most perfect private eye I've seen drawn out of whole cloth in quite some time. But what's important is that Levien takes just as much care with every character, in particular Jamie's father, Paul, who becomes a full-fledged participant in the novel's events. The doers are also given wonderfully-turned portraits, as Behr move step after step up the food chain. They're distinct and believable; like the rest of the cast, they have the ring of truth about them. Some characters you'd like to know; some you'd hope never to meet. But they all seem like real people you could meet.

Levien keeps the plot linear and complicates it slowly, by degrees. It’s a fascinating performance to read, propelled by some of the cleanest prose you're going to find this side of George Pelecanos. The prose of this novel is a wonderfully intense pleasure. It gives the novel a naturalistic feel that pulls it back from genre and even fiction itself. There's a reporterly sparseness that makes the emotional notes more poignant, a raw honesty that is refreshing and compelling. The purity on display keeps the reader focused on characters and their exploration of the plot. It also lets the complexity of the novel unfold in an unaffected manner. The layers are clearly laid down, one at a time, and readers will know that they’re in the hands of a writer who does not cheat, a writer as honorable as his characters. The resolution is extremely satisfying.

'City of the Sun' never falters in its even-handed vision of the people it presents. Some are capable of horrific deeds (which you never have to really see, though you’re given the ammunition to imagine them, if so inclined). Some are capable of heroic deeds, large and small. You'll believe that these all-too-ordinary people, who might be your neighbors, are indeed capable of something greater. You'll definitely want to see where Frank Behr goes next.

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