I was about a third of the way through MISSION FLATS when I put the book down and picked up the phone. I started calling friends in town, then emailed a few more scattered here and there across the country and around the world, telling them that I was in the middle of a new novel that, in my opinion, would be this year's PRESUMED INNOCENT or A SIMPLE PLAN --- one of those novels that seems to spring from out of nowhere into the national consciousness. More than one friend asked how I could know that before finishing the book; I couldn't answer them. I just knew when I reached page 100 that MISSION FLATS was going somewhere special.
William Landay is a former district attorney and undoubtedly there are a couple of his former colleagues who form the template for at least one of the characters in MISSION FLATS. The main focus of the story is Ben Truman, who at the age of 24 finds himself walking unsteadily in the shoes of his father, Claude. Ben is the police chief of Versailles --- pronounced Ver-Sales, as we quickly find out, a municipality that is more than a hamlet but less than a village in rural Maine. He inherited the job from his father, a bear of a man who people still refer to as The Chief. Ben never wanted the job and never even wanted to be a policeman. He was content with his graduate studies in Boston until family circumstances called him home. He is stuck in the ennui of his surroundings, his job, and a relationship where the emphasis is on "physical fulfillment" until the discovery of a body in a summer cabin changes everything.
The body belongs to Robert M. Danziger, Assistant District Attorney of Sussex County. Danziger is the victim of foul play and there is an immediate suspect: Harold Braxton, a Boston gang leader heavily involved in drug dealing. Danziger's body bears the trademark of Braxton's execution. Given that Danziger was in the middle of prosecuting one of Braxton's underlings and that Braxton was seen in the area prior to the discovery of Danziger's body, Braxton's culpability is a foregone conclusion. Ben Truman finds the investigation slipping away from him, his territorial jurisdiction being usurped by Maine state law enforcement and the long arm of big city Boston jurisdiction.
Truman, in an apparent face-saving gesture, goes to Boston with John Kelly, a crusty, retired Boston homicide detective whose daughter happens to be a co-worker of Danziger's. Truman appears to be a fish out of water, a barely wet behind-the-ears rural policeman thrust into the big city. Truman however is anything but a yokel. He demonstrates in strange, unexpected ways that there is an unanticipated depth to him that makes it unwise to underestimate him.
As the hunt for Braxton proceeds, the trail begins to lead into the past, into the murder of a Boston policeman some 15 years previously and the suicide of a cop-killer a quarter-century before. The link between those incidents, Danziger's killing, Braxton, and the Boston police department form a complex web that becomes more fascinating and intriguing with every page --- with every word --- of MISSION FLATS.
Landay is a marvel; he imbibes into MISSION FLATS and its characters a life missing from so many novels and does it all with nary a misstep. Ah, one comment on that. Landay drops hints along the way that point to where he is going. I mistook a couple of those to be minor, first-time author errors. They weren't. They were guideposts, disguised as bushes. No matter how carefully you read MISSION FLATS, however, to guess the ending is nigh impossible. And the ending resonates with dilemmas, moral and practical, that will keep you thinking long into the night.
MISSION FLATS is a haunting and compelling work that transcends genres and will make William Landay a household name in homes where great literature of any stripe is valued and treasured. This is a novel to be read, studied, discussed and enjoyed repeatedly. Highest possible recommendation.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011