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A missing persons mystery is inherently different from a murder mystery. In a missing persons mystery, one doesn’t know if the victim is dead or alive, or if the disappearance is innocent or sinister in nature. The central character of American Crow is Sibelius Blake, a tough, tattooed “tracer,” an expert in tracking down missing persons. The British Blake is sent across the Atlantic to investigate the disappearance of a young art student who journeyed to the United States and then stopped contacting her father. Is she just another rebellious youth exploring a strange country, or is there some sinister force keeping her from returning home?
American Crow is a very well-paced thriller, and Blake is always interesting, though he never quite achieves the necessary level of likeability for the reader to form a genuine emotional connection to him, though on occasion Blake comes close. The opening chapter, where we learn about a personal tragedy in Blake’s recent past, is certainly a tragic scene, but it’s told very matter-of-factly, and the emotional impact is all on the surface. There is no deep, resonating sense of pathos and loss, and it would really help if it was. It would be wrong to say that there are shortcomings in the characterization– Blake’s character is pretty well-developed. He just lacks the magical spark that makes the reader really want him for a real-life friend.
Blake may not be totally endearing, but at least the reader can enjoy tagging along for a road trip through the American Midwest and Appalachia. The plotting and action shows Lacey’s greatest strengths. Blake follows one slim lead after another, gets into fistfights, flirts with women, and meets some colorful characters over the course of his cross-country trek searching for a missing girl. Blake is as skilled at handling himself in a fight as he is with charming a woman with information, and throughout the book it’s clear that the investigation is in good hands.
Preachiness is a death knell for many novelists, when a social issue or political problem is introduced into the plot and the novel grinds to a screeching halt as the book becomes an overwrought editorial rather than a pleasant work of fiction. A central plot point of American Crow is in the environmental devastation and greed of a major corporation as it pillages Appalachian neighborhoods, and it is to Lacey’s credit that the descriptions of corporate malfeasance and the dangers of reckless mining never become forced or grating, but instead are a very convincing warning about real environmental dangers.
The book is very readable, and once I started I found it difficult to stop. I enjoyed watching Blake track down clues, and thoroughly enjoyed watching his tough-guy approach to investigation. American Crow is a tightly-crafted thriller, and a satisfying read. It seems that this is the first book in the series, and hopefully many more will follow, further developing Blake’s character and exploring more missing persons cases.
I give this book three out of four stars.
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