Joseph Koenig,
False Negative
(Hard Case Crime, 2012)

Note to budding newspaper reporters: If your editor asks you to cover a politician's speech to a group and you know he has made exactly the same speech for a dozen previous years (because you covered them all), do not feel that you can safely skip this one and recycle an earlier story, using the same quotes from last year's speech. This might be the year that the politician drops dead on stage and, while all the other papers have the story of his death, yours has a summary of the speech he would have given if he'd lived.

This is what happens to Adam Jordan, the protagonist of Joseph Koenig's False Negative. Jordan is, of course, fired, but fortunately he had another story in the same issue, this one about the murder of a beauty contestant -- we are in early 1950s Atlantic City, after all. The second story gets him hired by a true-crime pulp magazine.

Naturally, the story he is chasing turns out to be more complicated than he'd thought; it involves beauty contestants/hookers who keep disappearing and turning up dead. The Atlantic City power structure does not want the situation examined, of course, and Jordan finds himself in danger. If he succeeds, he gets the biggest story of his career, his path back to a major newspaper. If he fails, he dies.

Koenig began his career writing for the true-crime pulps, so his material on that world is fascinating, some of the most interesting material in the book. He captures it perfectly. The case that centers the book is a strong one; you'll keep turning the pages. What is a little off-putting, though, is the coldness in the book. Koenig's characters almost celebrate amorality; none are fully sympathetic. He offers a dark view of the world and some readers might find the unrelenting darkness a problem.

What counts, though, is this: in 1986, Joseph Koenig published his first novel, Floater, which was nominated for an Edgar award. He followed that up with three more novels. His 1993 book, Brides of Blood, was named one of the New York Times' Notable Books of the year. False Negative is his first novel since Brides; he was silent for for 20 years, and now he's back with a strong book.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

28 July 2012

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