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Purgatory Chasm: A Mystery by Steve Ulfelder
Cover Artist: Luthien / Photocase
Review by Joseph B. Hoyos
Minotaur Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780312672928
Date: 10 May 2011 List Price $23.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author's Website / Show Official Info /

Conway Sax's dream of becoming a NASCAR superstar was destroyed because of drugs, alcohol, and a manslaughter charge. Thanks to AA meetings sponsored by the Barnburners, Conway got his life back on track. A fellow Barnburner, Tander Phigg, implores him to retrieve his Mercedes-Benz from Motorenwerk, a mob-controlled auto mechanic shop in Rourke, New Hampshire. At the shop, Conway is clubbed in the head, and Tander is later found swinging from a pipe in his shack. While searching for his killer, Conway uncovers the tragic past of Tander, a former millionaire who became a bum. He also discovers a vicious psychopath who will murder anyone in order to find the small fortune Tander has hidden.

Steve Ulfelder's superlative debut, Purgatory Chasm, was a genuine surprise for me. Auto mechanics always intimidated me. I don't know anything about my car except where to put the gas and when to drive it to Firestone for its quarterly oil change. Honestly, I thought I would get lost and bored reading Purgatory Chasm. I was so very wrong. It was one of the best mystery debuts I've read in a long time. Steve Ulfelder is definitely a new voice to be heard in the noir genre. Unlike most bloody, shoot-'em-up crime dramas, Purgatory Chasm is a great whodunit. Tander Phigg's killer isn't revealed until almost the very end.

Yes, this testosterone-fueled novel has a lot of vehicles denoted only by letters and numbers. For example, Conway drives an F-150. Why can't he just say it's a Ford truck? And for the more butch readers, there is a vast assortment of tools mentioned at Motorenwerk. Also, Conway is quite the industrial home repairman. He can do much more with a hammer than just hit someone with it. With the help of Tander's son, Trey, who's been living in Vietnam, he hangs drywall. After reading Purgatory Chasm, I feel that I can almost build my own bathroom. There is only one race scene and it takes place between Conway and his father Fred (also a recovering alcoholic) on a dirt track at Purgatory Chasm State Reservation.

Ulfelder knows all the tricks for making a novel more interesting and appealing. For example, he throws in adorable children, twelve-year-old Sophie Bollinger and toddler Tuan Phigg; two cats, Dale and Davey, named after dead NASCAR racers; and a helpless old man, Fred. In fact, the entire novel contains an odd assortment of unique characters. The most unusual are the humongous Beet Brothers (Bert, Bret and Bobby) who live like wild, cannibalistic hillbillies on an isolated compound. Though the setting of this bloody crime noir, Rourke, New Hampshire, isn't exactly exotic, at least it isn't taking place in New Jersey or New York like so many others I've read.

However, what I liked most about Purgatory Chasm is its emotional human drama. It is like a soap opera, especially the back story that takes place in New York City in the 1960s when Tander Phigg had his "five happy years". He lived a Bohemian lifestyle in the gay and art community of Manhattan. Tander wasn't gay; however, he had a girlfriend who caused quite a stir. Other characters also had colorful pasts such as Ollie Dufresne who was once a member of the French Foreign Legion when he was young; now he's involved with mobsters from Montreal. In this novel, there seems to be a lot of alcoholism, drug abuse, and abandonment issues that are passed down from one generation to another. What I like the most about Conway is that he continues to love his father despite all the abuse he suffered at his hands. He has a very strong, tough exterior but a very soft, caring heart.

I must mention an extremely unique character whose type I haven't encountered before in a mystery. Conway's best friend is Randall Swale, a soldier who had his foot blown off in Iraq; he wears a prosthetic and has learned to lead a normal life with it. Overall, Purgatory Chasm is a very unique mystery with memorable characters and a gripping, whodunit plot that involves a serial killer. On several occasions, I became teary eyed, especially when reading about the crushed hopes and dreams of some of the novel's tragic characters. The ending itself was quite sad. I won't be able to shake myself free of it for a long time. It's the type of story that makes me grateful for having loving parents. I most assuredly will be reading future novels from Steve Ulfelder and hope they feature more of Conway Sax. Other examples of excellent noir with tough, streetwise heroes, which I highly recommend, are Thomas Kaufman's Drink the Tea: A Mystery, Brian M. Wiprud's Buy Back, and Daniel Judson's Voyeur .


Our Readers Respond

From: Void
I usually don't have the patience for thrillers/suspense (I'm sadly I just peek at the end so I don't keep myself up at night wondering who did it), but character-driven literary suspense sounds like it might be a good foray into the mystery world. I'll have to check this out. Thanks for the review!

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