Review: Adrian McKinty's meticulously plotted novel Fifty Grand is exceptionally well written and such a joy to read that it is ever so slightly disappointing that the author chose to populate it with stereotypical characters and end it on such a weak note.
Cuban police officer "Maria" Mercado's father, a defector and traitor to the Revolution, has been killed by a hit-and-run driver in Colorado. Not satisfied with the official investigation, she decides to risk her own life, and that of her brother and mother who remain in Havana, to illegally travel to the US to determine the true circumstances of his death and, if possible, to avenge it. Receiving permission from Cuban authorities to travel to Mexico, she assumes there a false identity and crosses the border as an illegal alien, one of many Mexicans looking for work in the US. Though she ultimately discovers who killed her father, there are many questions that remain unanswered. And she realizes too late that the answers are, in fact, back in Havana.
Fifty Grand opens with Maria imprisoning, in an ice-filled lake of all places, the person she believes responsible for her father's death. And when he cries out, "How d-did it c-come to this?", she answers, "We've got time. I'll tell you." The narrative then goes back in time and relates how she came to be in Colorado and why she's watching a man slowly freeze to death in a lake. It is, admittedly, very slow going at times, especially in the early chapters. Still, it's strongly written, often punctuated with short, descriptive, bulleted sentences. "A bus stop. Mountains to the west and east. A spear of cloud in a cobalt sky. The road a straight line running through woods on either side of a broad valley. The outskirts of Fairview to the south, nothing but forest to the north. Forest all the way to Canada. The sound of a chain saw." Maria is able to quickly adapt to her new surroundings and go about the task at hand, "[t]he dull clothes better than camouflage, just another Mex going about her silent business, just another invisible with no plans or dreams or thoughts in her head."
Though the characters are, for the most part, fully and richly drawn, the author isn't above resorting to racial profiling. White Americans are typically depicted as rich, corrupt, ignorant or lazy; sometimes all of the above, often worse. Latinos, on the other hand, are honest, hard-working and exploited. Two icons of American culture, Hollywood and Starbucks, are also specifically and repeatedly targeted as examples of "yuma" excess. There are even less than subtle political overtones, that in spite of the desperate poverty and inefficiency of Communist Cuba, its manner of governing is superior to that of its richer, far more powerful neighbor, the United States. None of this is really relevant to the plot, thus its unnecessary inclusion in the book made all the more obvious.
Despite these relatively minor annoyances, the brilliance of the writing in Fifty Grand and the intricate plot are sufficient to recommend it. But as carefully crafted as most of the book is, the conclusion comes off as pedestrian, predictable to be sure, a quick and clean, albeit uninspired, way of ending what is otherwise an exceptional novel.
Acknowledgment: Henry Holt provided an ARC of Fifty Grand for this review.
Review Copyright © 2009 — Hidden Staircase Mystery Books — All Rights Reserved
Selected reviews of other mysteries by this author …
The Cold Cold Ground
Seventh Street Books (Trade Paperback), November 2012
ISBN-13: 9781616147167; ISBN-10: 1616147164
Location(s) referenced in Fifty Grand: Colorado
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Fifty Grand by Adrian McKinty
Publisher: Henry Holt
Publication Date: April 2009
List Price: $25.00