Book Review of Mission Flats by William Landay
How many different ways can a murder mystery be told? Many of them share the same elements: a cop or detective, often out of his element or an outsider in the investigation, an obvious suspect who probably didn’t commit the crime, and an uncertainty about everyone else involved rendering most, if not all of them, worthy of some level of mistrust. Mission Flats by William Landay has all of that. Its protagonist is Ben Truman, a young police chief in a tiny Maine town.
A Boston district attorney is found murdered in a lakeside cabin there, and to solve the crime, Ben must go to the mean streets of Boston to find his man. There he works with local police and prosecutors who can seem like friends and allies one day, and accusers and antagonists the next. Then a surprise ending makes you go back and rethink everything you thought you read and understood in the story.
What sets Mission Flats apart from your run-of-the-mill murder mystery is an insider’s peek into the world of police work and the justice system, which is expertly done by William Landay, a Boston native and former district attorney himself. That he’s written a suspenseful story that rings all too true raises this novel well above many of its genre’s brethren.
The story is told in first-person by Ben Truman, the police chief of Versailles (pronounce it Ver-sales), Maine. It’s a job he doesn’t particularly want. He left graduate school at Boston University to come home to assist his mother who was suffering from Alzheimer’s. His father had been the police chief, and when he retired, the job passed to Ben, not that anyone else really wanted it anyway.
Ben is still grieving over his mother’s death, and when checking cabins by Lake Mattaquisett late one fall, he finds the murdered and decomposing corpse of Robert Danziger, a prosecutor from Boston. Ben is quickly shunted aside in a supporting role because the attorney general’s office handles all murder investigations in Maine.
The main suspect is quickly identified by Boston police as Harold Braxton, a gang leader and drug dealer that runs his business in the rundown section of Boston called Mission Flats. The Boston detectives have already decided he committed the murder and it’s just a matter of finding him and bringing him in, dead or alive.
Ben returns to the crime scene, wanting to be involved in some way, and is interrupted by a man who chastises him for despoiling evidence at the cabin. He identifies himself as a cop who came to “scratch an itch” and see for himself. He looks in the doorway, and after a minute or two prepares to leaves when Ben stops him.
“Wait a minute,” I called after him, “wait a minute, that’s it? I thought you wanted to look at it.” He turned back. “I just did.” “But you can’t see anything from there.” “Of course you can, Ben Truman.” He gave me a little wink and turned to go. “Hold on a second. You came all the way out here just to — Who are you anyway?” “I told you, I’m a policeman. Well, a retired policeman. But as they say, a retired policeman is like a retired whore — she can stop working but she’ll always be a whore. We’ll always be policeman, you and I. It’s the nature of the job, Ben Truman.”
The retired cop is John Kelly, and he quickly ascertains that Ben lacks some basic police skills. These skills weren’t necessary in Versailles, where even petty crime is rare. Kelly teaches Ben how to read the crime scene. Deciding he has to be involved in the murder investigation somehow, Ben convinces Kelly to join the Versailles police force and accompany him to Boston.
Once in Mission Flats, Ben is quickly a fish out of water, not just because the ghetto is an unknown world to him with unsaid rules he doesn’t understand, but also because of his lack of police experience with drug and murder cases. Ben is smart and tenacious, though, and he learns quickly on the job, although he makes several missteps along the way. His weakness is that he doesn’t know how to work people and how to jimmy the system in his favor. He participates in drug raids, watches the prosecutors and lawyers during court hearings, and tries to read the different police detectives who use different approaches to getting their men.
Ben had been worried from the beginning that Harold Braxton was being set up to take the fall for the murder. The more he investigated details that didn’t ring true, two old murders kept coming up. One was a Boston policeman raped and murdered when he stumbled into an armed robbery. The second one was another Boston cop murdered, supposedly by Harold Braxton, while trying to smash through an apartment door during a drug raid.
A shotgun blast through the door killed the officer, and although the person inside disappeared without being seen, the shotgun was found with Braxton’s prints on it. Braxton beat the rap because a legal technicality on the search warrant negated any of the evidence found.
As Ben and Kelly ask about these cases, cops and prosecutors become silent, and warnings and threats are made to leave it alone. Eventually Ben is informed that he is a suspect in Danziger’s murder, and they can present motive and evidence to back up their accusation. Ben quickly realizes that if they can’t pin the murder on Braxton, they’ll pin it on him.
William Landy’s inside knowledge of the justice system lends an aura of authenticity to Mission Flats. The reader quickly understands the cat and mouse game between the drug dealers and the police and prosecutors. Braxton is a combination of high intelligence, street smarts, and savage cruelty. Mission Flats is his section of town and anyone that crosses him or threatens his business does so at the risk of their own life.
The few witnesses that agree to testify are usually found dead. To bring him down, the police often resort to methods and activities that aren’t strictly legal. This is the heart of Landay’s novel. When do the ends justify the means? When is a white lie better than the truth? Does convicting a man for a crime he didn’t commit provide justice for the crimes for which he wasn’t convicted, but still guilty of committing? Is burying evidence to avoid a racial riot a worthy effort?
Ben Truman, and the reader seeing the story through his eyes, struggles with these questions. As he watches other police detectives bend the rules to serve their needs, he finds he might have to do the same to protect his own life and reputation. If evidence can be changed or invented to justify an arrest or conviction, Ben finds he doesn’t know who he can trust. If his dogged pursuit of the earlier murders upsets the police and prosecutors who want it left alone, then can’t they do the same to him to serve their purpose?
As the novel progresses, Ben’s innocence slowly bleeds away as he becomes more like the cops he’s afraid to trust. With his own life in jeopardy, Ben has to decide how far he’ll go in search of the truth and to protect himself. The ending is a shocker. To say much more would be to give it away, but it’s a particularly disturbing conclusion. Everything that preceded it has to be reexamined and reconsidered. When the truth is known, has justice been done?
It’s surprising that Mission Flats is a debut novel for William Landay. Each of his characters is artfully crafted and easy to see in the mind’s eye, yet complex enough to leave you with a feeling that you still don’t quite know enough about them. The rapport between the different detectives and their interactions with the people in Mission Flats is expertly captured through dialogue that flows effortlessly off the page and through the physical aspect of each character; the way they move, stand, and use their body to assert whichever aspect of their personality is appropriate at the moment.
Mission Flats is not a novel you finish and quickly forget, a testament to William Landay’s skill at creating characters and a story that not only resonate with you, but also disturb you. He’s crafted a mystery that does more than keep you guessing, but keeps you wondering how close to the truth it is in its rendering of the inner workings of the police and justice systems. As he suggests several times in the novel, sometimes it’s better if the truth is not known.
The editor of The Readers Loft, and pursuer of relatively interesting information, Simon has a Masters Degree in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of Wales, and is a photo-journalist and writer whose written and photographic work has been represented by the AFP news agency and appeared in newspapers across Europe and Asia.