by E. Richard Johnson
Harper & Row
Rating – 6/10
Summary – Silver Street is an award-winning novel that was written by a convicted murderer as he served time. The plot is mediocre, but the setting is vivid.
Review – Silver Street is one of those novels that I’ve always wanted to read. I first heard of it from a positive review in Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller’s book 1001 Midnights. The “hook” for Silver Street is that the author, E. Richard Johnson, was a convicted murderer who wrote the novel while serving time in Minnesota’s State Prison at Stillwater. Later, when I learned that Silver Street had won the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award for Best First Novel I felt that I had to read it.
Maybe my expectations were too high. I read Silver Street – and I liked it – but I thought that it would be better.
The plot of the novel is simple, and will be quite familiar to mystery fans. Tony Lonto is a homicide cop who grew up in the slums of an unnamed Midwestern city. Now, he patrols those same streets. At the beginning of the novel, a killer starts killing the city’s pimps and Lonto must track him down to stop the carnage. The novel develops several subplots, some of which concern Lonto’s love life, his cowardly partner, and his crotchety boss. It’s all well written, but none of it is surprising.
What Silver Street does have going for it is atmosphere. Johnson knew the mean streets well. The book opens this way –
“The rain was cold and from the north. It was hail-edged as the wind blew it in slanting curtains over the stockyards to stir old stenches and wash them toward the river. It pelted hardened drops on the glass surface of U.S. 28 and blew in gusts over the shack-studded flats between the river and Silver Street, where it painted the aging buildings of the slums a lead gray that was broken only by the red flicker of bar lights and the occasional yellow eyes of a passing car” (page 1).
One interesting choice that Johnson makes is that he tells the story from a variety of viewpoints. The narrator tells the reader what each character is thinking and feeling. This narration is well done, but the constantly-shifting perspective makes the book seem unfocused. A more-conventional choice would have been to tell the entire story from Lonto’s perspective.
Not surprisingly, the book has a world-weary tone. All of the characters struggle along as best they can, but no one is under the illusion that ours is a gentle world. One of the characters is a newspaper vendor nicknamed Trashcan O’Toole. Johnson describes his thoughts on becoming a police informer:
“Trashcan lived by the four punk’s rules that were necessarily followed to ensure health on the Strip. The punks said that you drank a lot of water, walked slow, carried a big stick, and you didn’t talk to cops. If you did [talk to cops], there would be some loud talking, some fast cutting, followed by some sad singing, and some deep digging” (page 129).
Silver Street is an easy, quick read at 151 pages. Johnson paints a vivid, realistic picture of the mean streets, even if his plot is fairly predictable.