A REVIEW OF
Stephen Mack Jones
‘August Snow’ in the forecast
By William Boyle
Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger
USA TODAY NETWORK
August Snow is an ex-police detective and former Marine from Detroit who brought down his whole corrupt department and was awarded twelve million dollars in a wrongful dismissal lawsuit. As Stephen Mack Jones’s debut novel begins, Snow has returned from traveling abroad to his childhood home in Detroit’s Mexicantown and is aiming to use his settlement money to revitalize the neighborhood.
When finance magnate Eleanor Paget, a former acquaintance of Snow’s, invites him to her Grosse Pointe mansion and tries to hire him to look into some shady activity at her bank, he refuses the job. She’s found dead a day later and it’s labeled a suicide, but Snow knows something is amiss and enters into an investigation he hasn’t bargained for.
The son of an African-American cop and a Mexican-American painter, both dead, Snow is a compelling and complex character. He’s a haunted Catholic who has moderated his drinking; a hard-boiled type, yet poetic and deftly-drawn. Snow is a great observer, an accessible guide to Detroit. “August Snow” has many things going for it, but chief among them is a main character who I’d be willing to follow anywhere, into any restaurant, down any dark alley, across whatever invisible boundaries he encounters.
The book also has an incredible sense of place. The Motor City is endlessly fascinating, a microcosm of the American experience, a perfect lens through which to view our myriad problems, especially in regards to race and class. Jones writes about Detroit with heart and great knowledge—one feels immediately drawn into and familiar with the streets, the houses, the vibrant hum of a damaged city trying to bounce back. From the very first chapter, we’re grounded, swept up in Jones’s portrait of a place that he views with awareness and fierce warmth.
The plot goes to some unexpected places (this is no mystery-by-the-numbers), and Snow is surrounded by a colorful and engaging cast of characters: old pal and confidant Tomás Guitierrez; Jimmy Radmon, a would-be drug-slinger who Snow offers honest work; the unforgettable Bobby Falconi, Wayne County Chief Medical Examiner; Captain Ray Danbury, an honest cop in a sea of dishonest ones; FBI Special Agent Megan O’Donnell; a computer specialist named Skittles; and many other cops and agents and neighbors and crooks that help bring Jones’s Detroit fully to life.
Jones also writes enthusiastically about food, and one of the great joys of the book is to feel like you’re on an insider’s tour of August Snow’s favorite restaurants, having a burrito and Negra Modelo right across from him.
Music hovers in the background, as well, be it on Bobby Falconi’s autopsy room speakers or someone’s phone. It’s a great feeling—as a reader and rabid music fan—to be guided by the book’s built-in soundtrack: R.L. Burnside’s “.44 Pistol,” Son House’s “Death Letter Blues,” and other apt choices that serve as connective tissue between noir and the blues. Cultural touchstones that inform the work also abound: references to crime writers like Dashiell Hammett and Chester Himes, to poets Federico García Lorca and Octavio Paz, to political activists and writers Angela Davis and Malcolm X.
Jones grew up in Lansing, Michigan and worked for years in advertising; he’s also a successful poet and playwright. Fans of Walter Mosley, Sara Paretsky, and Raymond Chandler should especially be interested in his knockout debut. The second book in the series, “Lives Laid Away,” will be released in January 2019. Here’s to more August Snow in our lives.
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William Boyle of Oxford is the author of two novels, “Gravesend” and “The Lonely Witness,” and stories, “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.” He and Stephen Mack Jones will appear on the panel Life’s Great Mysteries at the Mississippi Book Festival Saturday at noon.