Books

Book review: ‘The Hunger of Crows’ is a gripping, character-driven Alaska political thriller

“The Hunger of Crows”

By Richard Chiappone; Crooked Lane Books; 2021; 304 pages; $27.99

Homer, Alaska, doesn’t leap to mind as an obvious setting for a political thriller, especially one where the outcome could determine an American presidential race. Which is why Homer makes perfect sense. When someone has something to hide and someone to hide from, the fabled End of the Road is an enticing destination.

This is how Carla Merino finds herself there in Richard Chiappone’s suspenseful yet lighthearted novel “The Hunger of Crows.” Chiappone, who lives in and clearly loves Homer, makes his town and the surrounding Kachemak Bay region the backdrop for Carla’s getaway after she stumbles into possession of an incriminating photograph of an independent presidential candidate surging in the polls.

The story begins in Phoenix, Arizona, where Carla is a waitress in a bar catering to cops. Divorced and nearing 40, she fills the voids in her life by going home with stray men. When she meets Cosmo D’Angelo at the bar, she assumes he’s an enforcement officer of some sort, and follows him to his place. Before departing, she does what she does with all the men she sleeps with, she snitches something as a memento. In this instance, a photograph from D’Angelo’s bedside drawer of himself some 20 years younger, alongside another white American and two men who appear to be Latin American, one of them a military officer, the other possibly a businessman.

The second white man in the photograph is Gordon McKint, owner of Sidewinder Security, a secretive international firm that handles clandestine foreign relations tasks and is moving into U.S. border security. McKint is running for president on a nativist platform and has momentum. Carla sends a snapshot of the photograph to a reporter friend at The New York Times, who tells her it shows McKint with a Colombian colonel who stole millions in U.S. aid money. McKint, who’s suspected of engaging a lot underhanded activities, had stated before Congress that he never met the colonel. Release of the photo would prove him guilty of lying under oath, scuttling his presidential hopes and business empire, and possibly placing him behind bars. D’Angelo, who Carla went home with, is McKint’s fixer. He eliminates problems for the boss. And he’s going to want that photograph back.

With just a few belongings and the purloined photograph, a picture The New York Times would love to publish, Carla gets in her pickup and drives north. Which brings her to Homer, where most of the tale transpires.

Carla finds refuge in the alcohol-fueled fishing town, waitressing at the Orca Grill, a popular watering hole for locals and tourists. She falls in with George Volker, its owner, grows close to fellow waitress Shire Kaminsky, a single mother of twins, and gets noticed by Scott Crockett, a painfully honest local general contractor in the midst of an ugly divorce and thus newly available. And she’s forever looking over her shoulder for D’Angelo, who, this being a political thriller, has of course figured out where she is, and is on his way. As are some of McKint’s other people.

Got it? I don’t want to reveal too many more details here, because Chiappone throws so many unexpected twists into this plot that any attempt at summarizing them would not only fail to do the book justice, it would deprive readers of the sheer joy that comes from reading it.

I said at the outset that “The Hunger of Crows” is a political thriller, but the emphasis isn’t on the politics, while the thrills are judiciously dispensed as needed to move things along without overtaking the plot. It’s the characters who drive the story. Chiappone digs into their backgrounds, developing them into complex individuals. Most are in the early stages of midlife, grappling with the choices that led them to where they are. Carla is both following in her mother’s footsteps and running from her. Scott, who emerges as the primary supporting character, was born in Homer, and, like so many Alaskans, has a college degree but prefers working with his hands. D’Angelo, who could have easily been cast as a soulless killer, instead is a middle-aged man who has just lost his adult daughter to cancer. He, too, is struggling with his life choices. In Chiappone’s hands, past experiences drive the present motivations of all those in his leading roles. They make sense as people. As do their decisions.

Homer and Kachemak Bay are also characters of a sense in that Chiappone employs them as living forces that provide more than just the settings. He knows these places well, and evokes the contrast of natural beauty with human intrusion wonderfully in passages like this one, when Carla pauses to take in her surroundings:

“Along with the natural ocean scent of brine and fish, the breeze off the harbor reeks of diesel and dumpsters ... Two mature bald eagles sit atop a tall construction crane, scanning the beach for an easy meal.”

Anyone who’s visited the Homer Spit will instantly find themselves back on it with that description. And for those who have driven ... well ... anywhere in Alaska, Chiappone’s pithy summary of one of the state’s most popular outdoor siding options will ring true:

“They pass another house mummified in Tyvek fabric.”

“Mummified.” One of the constants in Chiappone’s writing, be it literary nonfiction, short stories, or political thrillers is his sense of humor. There are a lot of very funny lines so effortlessly slipped into this narrative that inattentive readers risk missing many, although a brief paragraph on the fate of fly fishermen, which I won’t give away, is impossible to overlook, and will have both veteran anglers and those who have never cast a rod laughing out loud.

“The Hunger of Crows” is literary enough that those who generally eschew genre fiction will want to give it a read, yet accessible enough that heavy readers of thrillers will enjoy it immensely as well. That’s not an easy gap to bridge. This one belongs on everyone’s late summer reading list.

"The Hunger of Crows," by Richard Chiappone

David James

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based critic and freelance writer. He can be reached at nobugsinak@gmail.com.

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