Books

Book review: Author John Straley takes readers to Juneau and its prison in new Cecil Younger mystery

“So Far and Good,” by John Straley

Soho Press, 2021. 288 pages. $27.95.

Cecil Younger is back! John Straley’s fans will be thrilled to catch up with the good-hearted but bumbling criminal defense investigator at the center of the Cecil Younger Investigation series. “So Far and Good” is number eight in the series that began back in 1992, with the Shamus Award-winning “The Woman Who Married a Bear.”

When last we saw Younger, in “Baby’s First Felony,” he had committed multiple crimes and been sent to prison. “So Far and Good” picks up with his incarceration in the Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau, a relocation from Younger’s previous home in Sitka. His daughter Blossom is now 17. Younger says, “She thinks of herself as my partner in our investigative business, which is not true, but there is nothing much I can do about that now.” Trapped in prison, with threatening but also sometimes sweet, poetry-loving fellow felons, Younger can only narrate the part of the story that takes place beyond the walls, as Blossom acts as her own Nancy Drew.

As the story begins, Blossom has a new school friend, a girl named George. George has had her DNA tested by one of those companies that tells you your ancestry. She also sneaked a sample from her mother, with the idea that she would surprise her mother with a trip to countries from which they had sprung. When the reports come back, there’s no match. George is not biologically related to her mother. Might she be related to another couple whose baby was kidnapped from the hospital at birth?

Soon an eccentric, flamboyant Anchorage lawyer and his investigator are involved, and the mystery deepens. Blossom, George and another friend follow their suspicions and manage to make amateur errors. Younger has his own difficulties negotiating his safety and trying, from a distance, to keep Blossom and the others out of harm’s way. The story twists and turns in mostly believable and sometimes horrifying ways that will keep a reader turning pages into the night.

Straley only recently retired from working as a criminal defense investigator himself, and the verisimilitude of all his novels is owed to his own intimate knowledge of the crime world and the legal and prison system associated with it. As he points out in a note at the end, there is a real Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau and he has spent lots of time in its interview rooms. Because he wrote this newest book during the pandemic, he was not able to research inside the prison but did solicit information from guards and former inmates. He also makes a point in his note to say that although he hates our system of warehousing human beings “as a solution to much of anything . . . the people who work in them should be well trained and well paid. The guards at LCCC are in reality professional and are usually solicitous of the inmates’ health and safety.”

As with the books set in Sitka, part of the pleasure of “So Far and Good” is recognizing actual landmarks. The boat harbor, the bridge, Cope Park, Star Hill, the Federal Building and the Shrine of Saint Therese all make appearances.

Straley is, as always, particularly skilled at presenting the physical environment. “Rain had fallen the night before, and as the sun burned through the clouds, steam rose off the blacktop and rays filtered down through the spruce and hemlock trees. The light was milky white and almost juicy …” And, “The prison is on a dead-end road. At night it lights up the little canyon, but during the day it’s a gray rain-filled cavity in a stream bed, like a gravel pit, surrounded by chain-link fencing and razor wire.”

The characters here, from the flamboyant lawyer to the shrewd prisoner inmates, are well rendered as individuals. Todd, the autistic, joke-obsessed adult that Younger has always cared for, is back in this volume, as is Younger’s wife, Jane Marie, a research scientist who lives on a boat.

Literary-minded readers may especially appreciate that, along with his prison library job, Younger tutors “an old-school post-pipeline gangster” serving time for murdering a competitor. Street, who becomes his protector, wants to learn how to talk respectfully to women who sit on the parole board, and Younger introduces him to feminist literature and poetry by Adrienne Rich. In exchange, Street instructs Younger about Black music and repression. Much of this relationship, when it doesn’t threaten violence, is presented with considerable humor.

Near the end, Straley jokes with readers, too, by introducing a real and recognizable person into his fiction. He writes, “A fine professor and writer named Ernestine Hayes came to Lemon Creek to teach a class on the literature of repression, and I got Street and Shawn Day to take it along with me. I’m proud to say that we all got one hundred percent in the class.”

It’s “so far and good” for Cecil Younger, who just may earn enough good time to be released for more adventure, including the parenting of a daughter who very much takes after him.

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