Book Review: Duane Swierczynski’s Canary
Back in the late ’80s or early ’90 the professional indoor “box” lacrosse team in Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Wings, ran a Major Indoor Lacrosse-produced promos to help sell tickets. After describing or showing all of the high-flying, hard-hitting action, the voice-over said:
“We’ll sell you the whole seat…but you’ll only need the edge!”
I always thought that was great marketing copy. Well, Mulholland Books, who is publishing Duane Swierczynski‘s new novel, CANARY, may want to appropriate that line. Because once you start Duane’s book, it’s pretty much non-stop action through the seedy side of Philadelphia, and it doesn’t stop until the parking brake gets pulled at the very end.
While this isn’t a book review blog (not saying it can’t be done) but you know my love of crime fiction and noir. Plus, I’ve mentioned Duane before down these mean streets a few times.
A few years ago, I took Duane’s and Lou Boxer’s Retreat To Goodisville. I also gave one of his other books, Fun & Games, my Friday Noir treatment too. Duane and I go back aways. I first met him in 1991. Summer vacation was over and we were ready to start our fall semester at La Salle University in Philadelphia. I sat on a backwards chair in my dorm room, while my floor of guys draped themselves on any available piece of furniture or floorspace front of me.
Duane was part of that group – I was their RA (resident assistant) in St. John Neumann Hall that year. It was my senior year, Duane’s sophomore year and I just wanted to get through it without to much hassle. Think my words of wisdom and guidance to that was group was something like “If I don’t see it or smell it, I don’t know that it’s going on. Respect the quiet hours. Have a good year.”
That year, while the other guys were smuggling in beer, Duane was smuggling in reams of paper to hone his craft. Probably.
I, of course, didn’t realize what a talent he was back then. Kinda knew it, from reading some of his stuff in the school paper, the way you know that one kid on the baseball field is better than all the rest. While he was from Northeast Philly, it looks like staying on campus was a good thing for him – he obviously used much of that experience in this book. The protagonist, Sari (short for Sarafina) – the canary in the title – is a freshman honors student at St. Jude’s (taking the place of La Salle). When Duane mentions Sari leaving the school library and crossing Olney Ave (La Salle sits at the corners of 20th and Olney) it felt like I was back in college. I swear I recognize glimpses of some of the teachers he mentions, too, but I’m not sure.
Part of the fun of this novel for me, aside from Duane’s storytelling talents, is that he takes me to places I know well. Sari’s adventure starts when she agrees to take a classmate (whom she doesn’t know is a drug-dealing classmate) she’s sweet on a run down to South Philly. As a thank you, he promises her a cheese steak from Pat’s. Makes sense. If you’re in South Philly, especially after a party a stop at Pat’s is nearly mandatory.
After La Salle, and save for a year living in West Philly, I lived two minutes away from Pat’s, in a row house on a small street, Sears, that isn’t even hardly wide enough to drive down it. It’s one of those unique South Philly blocks, one that Duane describes as bad guy “Chuckie Morphine” running his mobile drug business out of. My row house was at 7th and Sears – Chuckie runs his business a couple of blocks over on South 9th, but on the other side of Christian. Anyway, it’s all familiar. My old ‘hood.
When Chuckie’s heavies talk about a torture room in an abandoned warehouse under the Ben Franklin Bridge, I thought of this scene I caught off of Delaware Avenue (now know, grudgingly, as Columbus Boulevard) during that Return To Goodisville excursion.
Duane even takes the reader for a quick trip up the PA Turnpike to the Wyoming Valley. As I’ve mentioned here often, I spent my first 18 years of life traipsing all over the little Valley towns, and have recently been back. Duane,too, spent a few years living in Forty Fort, and is now one of the few fiction writers to mention The Valley in a book, at least as far as I know.
After “D” scoots away from the cops and leaves Sari holding the bag (pretty much literally) he heads to Bear Creek, PA, up there in NEPA, to spend Thanksgiving with family, while she has to deal with becoming an “confidential informant) for the Philly PD (Sari prefers canary to snitch). I know that area too, and wondered if “D” may have passed this church right off of Route 115 in Bear Creek, one I pass every time I head back home.
Of course, it’s always fun to find recognizable locations in any novel you read or movie you watch. That’s one reason I enjoyed Dennis Tafoya’s Philly-set The Poor Boy’s Game. He too wrote about Northeast Philly, Fishtown, Kelly Drive, all familiar spots to me. When I read one of Duane’s earlier books, The Wheelman, I thought it would be a fun photo project to shoot all the Philly locations he mentions. May still do that at some point.
Canary is a heckuva ride. Duane hop-skips between the pony-tailed protagonist to the ice-in-their-veins drug dealers and hitmen. I’d love to see his writing outline for this one, how he kept it all straight. And the ending dropped me off in a place I, frankly, didn’t see coming.
So, if you want to know how to use words like Rhawn, WaWa and Passyunk in a sentence, check out this book. I know Duane is already working with Tinseltown on other projects. Bet this one won’t be too far behind. In the end, though, he’ll always be tracking down the mean streets of Philadelphia.
The fine print: I was lucky to snag an advance reader copy of Canary. It’s available for pre-order on Amazon.com now. Duane also has a cool website dedicated to the book, where there previews, play lists, and all sorts of fun stuff. If I were you, I’d check it all out before this canary flies the coop.
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