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Uncle Janice


Uncle Janice

Come for the title, stay for the story. A title like “Uncle Janice” is going to attract your attention, as does the very well-done cover. It consists of a drawing of a police badge using what appears to be a white powder that is also piled in the middle of a maze. Take a look and come back.

Intriguing, right? But don’t try to anticipate what occurs or what UNCLE JANICE is. Matt Burgess’ sophomore effort (following DOGFIGHT: A Love Story) defies expectations by not being a mystery, police procedural or crime fiction, at least in the conventional sense. It is instead a dark and occasionally funny novel about a female undercover narcotics agent --- an “uncle” in the parlance --- who has an impossibly short amount of time to make an impossibly high number of drug busts.

"UNCLE JANICE is more of a character study than a work of crime fiction, but has enough elements of both to attract readers willing to cross genre borders."

Actually, UNCLE JANICE is about more than that. Janice Itwaru is the 24-year-old title character, tasked with doing the all-but-impossible to fulfill her quest of becoming an NYPD detective. Janice, a recently minted undercover narcotics officer, has to make four undercover drug busts in a matter of weeks. That doesn’t seem hard, until the ground rules that Janice has to work under are laid out. They are such that it is all but guaranteed that her cover as a street junkie will be blown after each and every arrest she makes. She nonetheless gamely invents new identities and stories to convince addicts, the unwary, and even professional criminals to sell her drugs and become the subject of a bust. The maze she attempts to penetrate on the street is equalled only by the Byzantine politics of the Queens Narco office, where offal flows downhill from the Mayor’s office and her fellow officers aren’t above pushing her into the path of it to keep things from splashing on them.

Janice’s home and family life is even more complicated. Her relationship with her mother certainly is, and is made more so by the elder Mrs. Itwaru’s slow but irrevocable descent into dementia and the hate/love/hate vibe between Janice and her older sister. Then there is Brother, Janice’s father, a small-time crime lord who has done quite well for himself using a body shop as a legitimate front and who walked out on the family several years before. Brother is proud of his daughter and doesn’t know how to convey that to her, even as he attempts, however haphazardly, to help her out.

With a family and job like this, Janice needs a 12-step program, but the closest she gets to it is a meeting that she winds up using in the hope of scoring one of the busts she so sorely needs. The job is difficult and dangerous, to the extent that one wonders why Janice even wants to continue a career in law enforcement. Then, when things seemingly could not get any worse, Internal Affairs (IA) steps in and begins pushing Janice’s buttons. The rookie has more street smarts than IA thinks. Janice believes she can navigate her way around IA and get her requisite number of drug busts. It is possible, though, that she might be wrong, at least on one count and maybe on both. One has to read the book to see how everything turns out.

UNCLE JANICE is more of a character study than a work of crime fiction, but has enough elements of both to attract readers willing to cross genre borders. There is plenty of humor --- grim, pratfall, silly and clever --- but there is also some quiet tragedy, particularly toward the end and involving the last bust that Janice needs to make her tally. Despite its occasional absurdity, the novel rings so true that one can practically see the television camera trailing behind her --- from the home that she shares with her mother to the Narc Bureau, from the gritty streets where she tries to make a bust to her dad’s chop shop. It’s worth reading slowly to get every detail.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 16, 2015

Uncle Janice
by Matt Burgess

  • Publication Date: November 24, 2015
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor
  • ISBN-10: 0345803442
  • ISBN-13: 9780345803443