Canary

Duane Swierczynski

Mulholland Books. 400 pp. $26

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Reviewed by Al Lubrano


To paraphrase Jack Nicholson in The Departed, they just do not stop having the Mafia in crime stories.

And sure enough, there's a bit of naughty goombah boom-boom in Philly-born crime novelist Duane Swierczynski's Canary.

Guys in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, the crucible of the modern American mob, grew up thinking of the Cosa Nostra as a safety school ("If I can't get into Columbia, I could always apprentice for Tommy Two-Knuckles"). And maybe someone who played stickball with future tomato-sauced killers isn't the right guy to see about this, but according to me, that Italian crime stuff is so played-out.

Still, there's endless appeal out there, even apparently for an author as deft and nimble as Swierczynski, who's made a name for himself as a scribe of thrillers as well as comic books. When all that's left of the Mafia are three shylocks and a guy who fixes middle school basketball games, people will continue to write about these thick-necked losers.

But, luckily, it's a slender college girl, not the mob, at the center of Canary, set in Philadelphia, where, Swierczynski tells us, you can always count on someone to do the absolutely wrong thing.

Honors student Sarie Holland gets entangled in the most innocent way with a cute guy who turns out to be a low-level drug dealer.

After she's busted, Sarie won't give the dude to the cops, so she becomes a confidential informant, run by an ambitious detective. Snitches traditionally don't do well in Philadelphia, and Sarie runs a bad-guy gauntlet in the dark city night.

Philly's well-earned national reputation as an open-air drug bazaar is a part of the tale, and Swierczynski provides longitude and latitude of colorful narco-locales. We get a good glimpse of the uptown p.m. activities, in which customers, most of them white, roll late-model cars like shopping carts down Kensington/Fairhill streets, purchasing product from young men with few life choices other than to sling dope in front of the dead factories that once employed their granddads.

Surprisingly savvy, sweet Sarie becomes a detective to pull herself out of an ever-deepening mess. Like Miss Marple with a foul mouth, Sarie is a gifted amateur, her clicking, ticking brain firing that much hotter than both the cops and the miscreants (who may all be one and the same).

Someone once compared Swierczynski to Elmore Leonard. That's neither fair nor accurate. But he can set a constant, wicked pace, like a writer with a metronome set up by the computer.

The English isn't poetry - "the gray skies are pregnant with snow" - but neither is it uninteresting. And if you're from Philly, it's fun to read about the action banging around Khyber Pass, the Melrose Diner, Pennypack Woods, and, of course, the Badlands.

There's a mostly checked-out dad, a dead mom, a loving brother, and a pack of lowlifes perhaps a bit too broadly drawn. Swierczynski could annoy readers by relying on two big coincidences to move the plot. And the ending strains, maims, and finally traumatizes credulity.

If a movie is ever made of Canary, there may well have to be a rewrite. Maybe they could take the Mafia guy out, too, just to keep Canary fresh.

Al Lubrano is an Inquirer staff writer and the author of "Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams."