Jay Stringer – Don’t Tell A Soul
Published by Swag Tales, available from Amazon on Kindle and in paperback (£9.99). The novel is also available in a dyslexic readers paperback edition. I received a proof copy of the novel from the author for review purposes.
First, the official blurb: David Ash, an indie rock star, has been missing for six months. Everyone in New York assumes his wife, former reality TV star Louisa Mantalos, has killed him. A popular true crime podcast is covering the case, and asking intrusive questions about Louisa’s past. Louisa is struggling to hold her life together and protect her two young sons from the news. Worst of all, an illness is changing her memories, and she can’t recall what happened on the night David disappeared. Did she kill him? Did he leave her? She doesn’t know. Running out of options, she hires Constantin McGarry, an ex-con private eye from Queens. He’s down on his luck and buries his heart beneath layers of irony and jokes, but he’s the only person left in town willing to take Louisa’s case. And it doesn’t take long for Con to realise Louisa’s story doesn’t add up…
One of my favourite things about crime fiction is that it is an immensely broad church, embracing everything from police procedural to spy thriller to action adventure to cosy and so much more. As such, it’s the perfect genre for Jay Stringer, who has so far given us half-Romani gangland detective Eoin Miller, Sam Ireland (a PI-cum-bike courier) and Marah Chase (essentially a female Indiana Jones). It’s safe to say he’s not one to be constrained by focus groups insisting on genre pigeonholes. Don’t Tell A Soul is set in New York and according to the cover quotes from James Oswald and Eva Dolan it is a PI novel and a psychological thriller. They’re both right – and there’s also a lot more to it.
We open with the transcript from a true crime podcast – if you’re a fan of Matt Wesolowski’s Six Stories series or Denise Mina’s Conviction you will feel right at home – which immediately throws us into a world of secrets and lies. The chapter ends like this: “It seems like nobody’s story really adds up. Can everybody be telling the truth? No. But could everybody be lying? Maybe.” Who is going to be able to put this book down after reading that line? Certainly not me.
Next we turn to Louisa Mantalos, struggling with a faulty memory, a custody battle and financial issues in the wake of husband David Ash’s disappearance – oh, and she’s also dealing with the fact that many people assume she has killed him and hidden the body. The missing indie rock genius and the former reality TV star are a very modern celebrity coupling, but what goes on behind closed doors is not much related to the faces they show the public. Do we trust her? Take a straw poll of readers after the first 20 pages and I suspect there would be a pretty even yes/no split. My approach when reading a book like this is to simultaneously believe everyone and believe no-one, and just enjoy the ride.
Constantin McGarry, aka Con, is a friend of Louisa’s lawyer, Ramona. Unlicensed and with a prison record, his clients tend to be on the fringes of legal – the scene introducing him is hilarious, too. He can’t say no to Ramona’s request for help, even when she refuses to tell him who the client is before he says yes to the job. (To me there’s definitely a tip of the hat to Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder in Con; alongside a recognition of the long history of New York being immortalised in crime novels.)
We flip between Louisa and Con, plus some podcast chapters, gradually building a picture of the characters and what has happened to David. I say building a picture – it’s more about collecting scraps for a large part of the novel, as if instead of completing a jigsaw fresh from the box we have first to go out and find the pieces scattered in various places in the city before we can sit down and sort it out. But while it’s not always better to travel than to arrive in a crime novel, the journey is as important as the destination.
The podcaster is Dee, creating a series about the case and offering another angle for the reader – and another layer of questions about what is true and what we think is true. Dee has been fed information by “Jack”, but how trustworthy is this anonymous source? And what links a murder, threats and a blackmail attempt to David’s disappearance? In the last quarter of the novel, the final rocks are overturned to reveal the grubby truths underneath. Con has been looking for a pattern, a grand plan, but sometimes the answer is smaller and messier than that.
The writing style is quiet and measured – even in the most intense moments it doesn’t show off and get self-consciously poetic – and it’s never less than effective in showing us what is going on whether on the street or in Louisa’s increasingly scrambled brain.
Don’t Tell A Soul is absolutely a PI novel, in that Con and his investigations are central to the plot, and it’s absolutely a psychological thriller in its shifting perspectives, unreliable narrator, and the mystery of whether this is a murder or an elaborate gaslighting scheme. There’s also a flavour of NYC mob tales, and a strong streak of classic noir, in that people make bad decisions that play out with inevitable consequences – as Louisa says close to the end of the book: “We are the choices we make.” Choose to read this book.
Jay Stringer was born in 1980, and he’s not dead yet. His crime fiction has been nominated for the Anthony and Derringer awards, longlisted for Not The Booker, and shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize. His stand-up comedy has been laughed at by at least three people. He’s English by birth and Scottish by legend; born in the Black Country and claiming Glasgow as his hometown. Jay is dyslexic and passionate about literacy, inclusion, and reaching reluctant readers. He has led workshops on writing crime fiction for Scottish Book Trust and mentored creative writing students for City, University of London. Alongside Russel D McLean, Jay was the first to bring Noir at the Bar to the UK.