THE BARKEEP is one of those books that you start reading and cannot put down, even as you almost wish you never reach the ending. William Lashner is primarily known for his series of legal thrillers featuring Philadelphia attorney Victor Carl, but this stand-alone work cements his deserved place in the constellation of master thriller authors.
As one might guess, THE BARKEEP is primarily about a bartender named Justin Chase, who lives simply in the midst of complication. He abstains from alcohol, eschews coffee, doesn’t own a television, and lives in what would be called monk’s quarters if the monk in question had a three-story cell. Before you laugh, consider that said cell does not have hot water. Yes, Chase is complicated, especially considering that his father is in prison for murdering his mother. He is at least partially responsible for his father’s conviction and believes to his soul that his dad killed his mother.
"THE BARKEEP is one of those books that you start reading and cannot put down, even as you almost wish you never reach the ending."
That conviction begins to go ever-so-slightly belly-up when a thoroughly unpleasant stranger enters the establishment where Chase works. He introduces himself as Birdie Grackle and informs Chase that it was he, Grackle, who murdered Chase’s mother as a work for hire --- and the hire wasn’t commissioned by Chase’s father. It’s a hook that sinks into Chase’s soul, and while he is not entirely convinced that Grackle is telling the truth, the foul-mouthed rummy has knowledge of things that he really shouldn’t. The disquieting encounters Chase has with Grackle get him to asking questions and conducting his own re-investigation of his mother’s murder, and the answers shake his memories of his parents and their relationship. But there are those who don’t want Chase asking questions, who would prefer his father stay in prison.
Meanwhile, a series of strange deaths seem to be tied, however tangentially, to Chase and his mother’s unfortunate demise. The District Attorney who successfully prosecuted Chase’s father, long tormented by doubt, is wondering about Chase’s connection to the entire matter. And there is, of course, an alluring woman --- always a woman at the heart of things --- who, before the book is finished, will provide a new connection between father and son. At the heart of everything is a dual mystery: Who did the killing? And why? Once you start reading, you will do so all night to get the answer.
One more thing before I leave you to your day: THE BARKEEP is beautifully written. Lashner’s prose is not flowery, but he is the master of subtle when he needs to be. There is one vignette, a very important one in the first third of the book, where a simple but very dangerous guy, Derek, meets a somewhat likable but flawed character named Cody. When you read this scene, you get a very general idea of how some things will play out later in the book as well as a grim feeling of foreboding. Lashner delivers on both counts. THE BARKEEP is worth putting at the top of your must-read list. And speaking of lists, I have already put it on my “Best Of” list for 2014. I think you will too.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on February 7, 2014