As "Third Rail'' opens, officer Eddy Harkness is having a pretty bad run. He plays a game of dodge on foot with speeding vehicles on the Mass. Turnpike, gets drunk in a dive run by a sleazy bad guy, goes home with a waitress — the aptly self-named Thalia Havoc — and discovers, in the midst of next morning's hangover, that he's lost his gun.
For Harkness, this spells unmitigated disaster: A former Boston Police detective, he's currently on unpaid leave from the force over a fatal incident one year earlier. While he's kept to the straight and narrow as a cop in his suburban hometown of Nagog, a missing firearm would pretty much put a kibosh on the rest of his career. So Harkness holsters a plastic stand-in and keeps his eyes peeled.
It's been a hard fall for Harkness. As a promising rookie, he was plucked by an astute police commissioner to head up the city's experimental new drug unit, Narco-Intel. It was time, the commissioner told Harkness, to dig deeper in their fight against crime: "Anonymizing networks, bitcoins, untraceable cell phones, drugs we've never heard of until they start killing people — if you can see the crime happening, it probably isn't that important."
Now Harkness is back in Nagog where everybody knows his name. He spends most of his time digging glue and other ephemera out of parking-meter coin slots, visiting with his aged mother, and running into his third-grade teacher, Mrs. Pettengill, who says things like, " What's happened to your family, Eddy — it's Shakespearean." (The tidiest of towns, as we all know by now, hold a multitude of dark familial tales, and Harkness's is no exception.)
Then a Volvo crashes spectacularly into Nagog's war memorial, leading Harkness to discover the presence of a new designer drug, Third Rail, and his world goes even more haywire.
As he treads a sinuous line among new and former colleagues, old friends, family members, and downright scary new acquaintances, Harkness inventively prowls the mean streets of Greater Boston — at one point he uses a skillful pitching arm to fire baseballs as a weapon — while juggling the wacky Ms. Havoc, a crooked city councilwoman gunning for mayor, a strangely terrifying, Cobain-blond man, several anonymous heavies, and a graduate student who makes extra bucks by dressing up as New England's historical figures.
Already compelling plot-wise, "Third Rail'' also glows with the kind of sawdust-dry humor regarding Beantown, cops, and the darkest of urban underbellies that you might find at 3 a.m. in the back booth of a backstreet bar.
"Brahmins and boyos, students and start-ups, numb-nuts and Nobel laureates — all jammed together," Harkness's commissioner-cum-mentor tells him. "Roads used to be cow paths. Everyone use to be Irish and Catholic. Unless they were Italian or Jewish. Short summers, long grudges. You don't have to say hello or pretend to be polite . . . Narrow down suspects to find the bad guy. Lower crime. We're all about reducing everything down to its essence. Like poets."
This novel may be Rory Flynn's crime-fiction debut, but the author is no stranger to top-notch writing: Rory Flynn is the pen name for Concord-based novelist Stona Fitch, whose previous four novels have been lauded by the likes of Megan Abbott, Richard Price, Russell Banks, J.M. Coetzee, and Jess Walter, and who launched Concord Free Press in 2008, publishing books gratis (Madison Smartt Bell is a current author), requesting that readers make charitable donations in return.
With its gaggle of crazy-yet-riveting characters, its spare approach and its unflagging action, "Third Rail,'' the first in a promised series of Eddy Harkness novels, adds yet another striking feather to Fitch's impressively-crowded cap.
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Find her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.