In wintry Philadelphia, a boy and girl meet semi-cute over a beer at a college house party. It’s the night before Thanksgiving and the girl, Sarie, a freshman studying for her next round of exams, is practicing her partying-avoidance techniques: Her dad is a drug and addiction counselor so she’s fairly abstemious without broadcasting the fact: “I know how to make a single beer stretch. . . . 1. Take shallow micro-sips 2. Opt for cans over see-through bottles 3. Occasionally fill can with tap water from bathroom sink.” She is nothing if not organized, a tightly honed capability that will soon serve her in excellent stead in startlingly unexpected ways.
D., a Stetson-doffing fellow student in dazzlingly red pants, approaches her flirtatiously, convincing her to give him a ride to “pick up a book from a friend.” Sarie figures she has plenty of time before she has to meet her dad at the airport at 6.30 a.m.: He’s flying in from California in time for Turkey Day.
And so she would have if “Canary” wasn’t a cunning, zippy, plot-twister wrought by Duane Swierczynski in a manner both entertaining and dark. Instead, Sarie finds herself busted with drugs in her car by undercover cop Benjamin F. Wildey while D. is purchasing one of Philly’s finest cheesesteaks. In order not to drop D. in the soup — Sarie is one highly principled woman — she finds herself having to take on a confidential informant role for Wildey. In other words, in order not to snitch on D., she becomes a snitch: “I am [basically] a good girl in a bad situation.”
But then Sarie decides to get herself and D. off the hook by unearthing a major drug dealer for Wildey. As she summons all her smarts, research abilities, analytical skills, and eidetic memory into one giant investigative project — what could possibly go wrong, right? — what started off as a deceptively amusing tale, smart-aleck wisecracks and all, rapidly evolves into a more nightmarish venture.
Sarie’s voice, an engrossing mix of idealistic innocence, clear-eyed, edge-of-adulthood realism and reckless determination — “If I can crank out some [expletive] paper on the French Revolution in eight hours, I can definitely find a drug dealer in Philadelphia” — is the primary linchpin here as she juggles classes, exams, and family movie night with her new street-based lifestyle; the narrative also includes input from Wildey, Sarie’s dad, her brother, and a handful of baddies.
Swierczynski keeps the action pulsating along — the entire novel takes place over a feverish few weeks — with an array of compelling characters, crisp dialogue, and pop culture references: deep in the grim and gory mire of Philadelphia’s narcotics-and-dollar-fueled underbelly there’s a professional hitman versed in 1993’s Sharon Stone-William Baldwin film, “Sliver.”
In a scene that’s both funny and gloom-ridden, Wildey sketches the structure of the organized crime world to Sarie using condiment containers: sugar packets stand in for the product — “Oxys, Percocet, heroin, whatever” — while salt and pepper shakers, jelly, and creamer tubs, and mustard and ketchup bottles represent various levels of the drug lords, kingpins, importers, dealers, and distributors. “ ‘All this, right here on this table?’ ” Wildey says to Sarie. “ ‘What you’re sitting in front of? This is a seven-hundred-fifty-billion-dollar game. That’s billion with a ‘b.’ And I’m just a brother making sixty grand a year trying to throw a wrench into it.’ ”
While the tale grows darker, Swierczynski keeps his protagonists tangibly humane. It’s those touches — like Wildey offering Sarie the best anxiety-alleviating technique since “Brady Bunch’’ dad Mike Brady’s “picture-your-audience-in-their-underwear” — that make “Canary” sing.
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.