Good Junk: A Cliff St. James Novel
by Ed Kovacs
Cover Artist: Photo: Erik Burass / Getty Images
Review by Ernest Lilley
Minotaur Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780312600891
Date: 11 December 2012 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Links: Author's Website / Show Official Info /
Kovacs is writing noir at its best. Good Junk is full of good stuff for anyone that likes noir detectives, high-tech gadgets, gritty streets, good looking gals, lots of guns, and surprisingly, a fair amount of character development mixed in with the fast action plot
Cliff St James is about as tough an ex-cop private investigator as there ever was. He'd have to be to have survived Ed Kovac's debut novel, Storm Damage, about post Katrina mayhem in the Big Easy. But survive he did, in fact, considering that the first book found him broke and nearly homeless, he's come up a long ways, owning an admirable array of guns, spy gadgets, a rolling arsenal or two and a nice set of digs with a fancy sub-zero refrigerator in it. Not to mention that he owns his own mixed martial arts dojo. Yes, St. James may be off the New Orleans force and scrounging up cases on his own, but he's not down on his luck. Except that when you're as tough as he is, the wounds that cut the deepest are the self inflicted ones, like not being able to forgive yourself for killing a sparring partner by accident.
Which is the problem that's haunting St. James when the story opens. Miserable, off his timing, and afraid to put his weight behind a punch, St. James is hiding out from shadows, his and everyone else's. When his almost girlfriend and sometime NOPD partner Detective Honey Baybee, who more than lives up to the name, drops a double homicide in his lap, he knows it's her idea of therapy, but he's smart enough to know it’s a good idea.
St. James may be off his game, but one look at the crime scene; a white Mercedes worth 100 grand, two very pretty guys in very nice clothes, one with his skull splattered over the car's interior, the other a few feet away, tells him that this isn't a lover's tryst gone wrong, but that it's been set up to look that way. The location, the scuffed heels on pretty guy number two, even the gun--good but not flashy enough for this pair--all add up to a deal gone bad, or a setup gone right.
The chief of police is trying to hang onto his job, and needs some righteous busts to do it, which is why Honey has a letter from him confirming St. James as a consultant for the department, a nice bit of irony considering he'd axed our boy from the force for getting in his way. We suspect some arm twisting from Honey, but this is the Big Easy, and everything seems possible, especially as the city scrambles to restore itself after Katrina, when money is flooding into the streets that water covered all too recently, and quickly becomes as dirty as the septic tide it replaced.
Del Breaux, the older of the two victims, worked at NASA's The Michoud Assembly Facility as a consultant, the feather in a long career of work on classified projects. Parks, the thirtyish guy in the car, was a shipping manager there as well, and yes they were lovers, the head of security confirms in a very uncomfortable interview in which our team isn't as impressed by words like "Top Secret" and "compartmentalized". Oh, and if the NOPD finds Del Breaux's laptop, they'd really like it back.
Allow me two quick asides here. First, it's unsurprising that Ed Kovacs gets so much right about the underside of things, from the intelligence community to the world of mixed martial arts and the third world vibe that comes off New Orleans. In science fiction, you'll occasionally find a physicist turning to the written page to get his ideas out to a broader public. In covert ops, you'll find someone like Kovacs. Besides spending two and a half years setting up a security company in Post Katrina New Orleans, he divides his time between security contracts on several continents and lives, sometimes, in "a hanger in a Southern California airport". We’d tell you which one, but you don’t have a need to know. Second, among the other facts that hold up, NASA's Michoud facility, where they built shuttle tanks before and now run a variety of projects for other agencies, weathered Katrina better than most of the city, thanks in part to geography, but in part to the staff that stayed through the storm to maintain the pumping stations, and to whom NASA gave its Exceptional Bravery Medal. New Orleans, Kovacs makes clear is an uneven muddle of people putting their lives on the line to make things better; from church volunteers coming down after the flood to cops coming together to solve a case, coupled with a loose appreciation of right and wrong all around. It's an interesting town.
Top Secret contracting for the government may pay well, but everyone in New Orleans has something on the side. Following the trail back to the victims' home she finds that a cleaning crew has been there hours before. New computers and fax machines and not a scrap of paper make it clear this isn't a case of the boys just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Fortunately for our team, when they reach the house, it's been unmolested. Not unvisited, but the first floor is apartments, and the renters didn't take kindly to a crew showing up with vans and FBI credentials at four in the morning. Evidently the cleaners didn't want to stick around for the police to show up. When St. James shows up and starts poking around, he comes up with the missing laptop in an upstairs bathroom and, considering the way things have been disappearing, decides to let it stay missing until he can get his own specialist to take a look at it.
Hmmm. That's a lot of detail, and the story is just getting started. Soon we'll have three government agencies, Chinese spies, an ex spook who lives in a crypt and at the bottom of a bottle of absinthe, a high tech arms auction with high level backing, mysterious containers in a scrap yard, and a lot more going on. If St. James was on top of his game, he'd take less damage as the case unravels, but fortunately he can take quite a bit, because it's coming his way.
The story is fast, violent, and twisty all the way to the end and my hats off to Ed Kovacs for putting it all together in a package that feels very real on a lot of levels. Throughout the action St. James struggles to make sense of his feelings, both about the man he killed in his dojo and about Honey, and what hers are for him.
At the end, a lot of water has passed by the levee, but he's still standing, or will be after he heals up, and his character has gained some interesting new depths, which we’re looking forward to exploring in Burnt Black, due out this year.