“Unthinkable” by Clyde B. Phillips, Thomas & Mercer, Seattle. Softcover, 368 pages, $14.95. Available at Edgartown Books, and Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven.
Back in the day, “Dotrats” was the relatively unfriendly nickname given to kids who lived in blue collar three-deckers in the Dorchester section of Boston.
Last week, reading Clyde Phillips’s latest crime thriller, “Unthinkable,” the thought occurred that something odd happened in Dorchester that didn’t happen in other Boston neighborhoods: a whole bunch of Dotrats have become really good writers and cinematic storytellers. Let’s see: Dennis Lehane, Chuck Hogan, and Mr. Phillips all have Dorchester roots. Others, notably the Wahlbergs, have become pretty good cinematographers. And put Mr. Phillips in there too. He’s the executive producer (and writer) of the “Nurse Jackie” series for Showtime. He’s also written for and produced the “Dexter” series about a serial killer with a good heart, the “Suddenly Susan” series and, well … you get the idea.
What they all have in common is a good ear for tribal neighborhoods: the customs, patois, and the inhabitants’ ferociously insular view of the world. What Mr. Phillips shows in his latest perfect-pitch thriller is that the good ear travels well, even to San Francisco, a bastion of political correctness more than somewhat unlike Boston’s grittier neighborhood.
“Unthinkable” is a crime novel, fourth in a series featuring Jane Candiotti, a lieutenant with the San Francisco Police Department who protects Bay Area civilians, and her career, with a great homicide close rate. In this novel, she gets to work a case involving a nutbag who slaughters six people in a local eatery. The victims include a priest and a couple of teenagers, including a nephew of Ms. Candiotti’s husband, homicide inspector Kenny Marks. Oops.
But as the layers of police work provide one small clue after another, we learn that maybe the mass murders weren’t the random result of a robbery gone bad.
The first chapter in this book is one of the greatest openers I’ve read in the genre. I’m telling you that I’d have finished the last 350 pages if they read like “Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.” Fortunately, that is not the case. Mr. Phillips unwinds this murderous tangle, strand by taut strand, until we arrive at the one piece that unknots the mess.
Mr. Phillips’ plots have been dubbed “Hitchcockian” by one reviewer. That means the plot is devilish, tricky, and that the murderer is in plain sight. No novelistic fakery by which the author introduces a fresh, new psychotic villain two-thirds of the way through the read.
We chatted by phone with Mr. Phillips, a longtime up-Island resident, about his book and his craft last week. “We lived-in three-deckers so close to each other you could almost touch your neighbor’s house. You could hear everything being said. I remember as a kid, listening to people talk and then making up stories about their lives. So, yeah, I guess I had my ear to the sidewalk.”
So how did a nice Jewish boy from blue-collar Blue Hill Avenue become such a big macher? Folks, this guy’s story sounds like a series of its own. Here’s a synopsis. He gets into Boston Latin School, the nation’s oldest with arguably the most competitive entrance exam. A good first step to “up and out” as we used to say.
Dad loses his neighborhood butcher shop. The family moves in with an aunt — in L.A. of all places. Student-athlete Clyde adapts, goes to to college and master’s in English Lit at UCLA. He’s teaching at Cal-Northridge when he gets to be a contestant in a game show, makes a little money, and ends up writing for the show. Hooks up with two veteran TV movie makers. They teach him the business and from there he’s out of the gate fast in the pole position. Along the way, he writes the first Candiotti novel on spec and it works, too. I am not making this up.
He laughs. “I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I get to write for a living and it’s real: I get to put my name on it.” Then he gets a Stat! call from the set of “Nurse Jackie” and he’s off.
The reality? He is a lucky guy who is good at his craft.
Example: Novel writers have the luxury of space and time to write exposition and nuance apart from dialogue. TV writers have to use dialogue to carry exposition, nuance, etc. But if the style carries over to novels, you can get stentorian or wooden dialogue. Not quite right.
Mr. Phillips largely avoids that. As the novel unfolds, his dialog speeds and pushes a fast-paced plot in “Unthinkable,” a story with a lot of undercurrents.
For example, an important story element pairs the SFPD lieutenant with Edgar Silva, a Latino gang padrone in an under-the-PC-radar effort to find the person who murdered Ms. Candiotti’s nephew and Mr. Silva’s younger brother in the mass slayings. A career-ender if she gets it wrong.
It’s one thing to have Boston homies like Robert B. Parker (Spenser series) and George V. Higgins (“The Friends of Eddie Coyle”) as how-to mentors, but the test is whether you have the ear yourself. You can’t beat these Dotrats at that.