No disrespect is intended in saying that this book, announced as the first in a new series featuring rugged handyman and amateur sleuth Virgil Cain, reads like the tenth. Brad Smith, former railway signalman, bartender, mechanic, truck driver, schoolteacher and author of crime novels such as One-Eyed Jacks and All Hat, knows this territory well, and Virgil is just the latest embodiment of a familiar figure in the author’s fiction: the masculine, seemingly omni-competent problem-solver fighting for justice while simultaneously standing up for the weak and innocent.
When we meet him, Virgil himself is the innocent man implicated in a couple of murders that have rocked a semi-gentrified upper–New York State rural community. Escaping from prison with MacGyver-like ingenuity, Virgil finds himself on the run from the law. Luckily, he has a guardian angel in the form of a sexy police detective named Claire Marchand. Virgil is just the kind of “real man” Claire needs after the breakup of her marriage to a wimpy loser. Meanwhile Virgil can’t help noticing that Claire has great legs. He immediately suspects that “somewhere beneath the cool exterior might be some warm coals.” She’s also the kind of gal who can’t read a book like To the Lighthouse without falling asleep. Virgil hasn’t figured out this whole Internet thing, and Claire has to be taught to appreciate classic rock, but obviously the two are meant for each other, and together they set out to find the real killer.
Smith’s moral universe is not a complicated one. Characters are either kind, good-hearted types (Virgil, Claire, an elderly veterinarian); sleazy, rich scumbags (the murder victims); or one-dimensional, role-playing morons (rural degenerates, redneck cops). Meanwhile, the “mystery” is the sort that the reader simply has to wait for the plot to resolve on its own, which it does in a satisfactory fashion (though not without leaving a number of loose ends, some of which may get picked up in later volumes).
Yes, it all follows a predictable formula, one that is as comfortable as the blue jeans, T-shirt, baseball cap, and work boots wardrobe of its hero, but this kind of literary comfort food is what one expects from franchise genre fiction. Smith handles it all very well, and we can confidently predict the further adventures of Virgil Cain will provide us with more of the same.