Sunday, September 14, 2008


Three Rivers Press, 2008, 978-0307382795, $13.95

Jackson Donne is back. The Jersey PI, last seen in Dave White’s debut novel, When One Man Dies, is drawn into a decades old case that implicates his own family in the complex and rewarding New Jersey thriller, The Evil that Men Do.

The first thing you notice upon starting this second Jackson Donne novel is that White has switched narrative styles since his first novel. The first person narration is gone, replaced entirely by a limited third that switches viewpoints between key cast members. Clearly a wise choice: White’s voice seems steadier here, less rough around the edges. The switch seems to imbue the author with a kind of confidence that ups his game, gives the novel a slightly tougher, more hard-edged feel than before. One of our problems with When One Man Dies was the occasionally awkward switch between narrative perspectives – something very few authors can achieve naturally – and this time round, the consistency of voice really creates a more cohesive and convincing whole.

Perhaps ironically, it is the distancing of the third person narrative helps Jackson seem more real. White’s style is near cinematic, so the distancing that comes with a third person narrative works in the author’s favour, allowing us a wider and more panoramic perspective.

Whether it’s down to this new voice, or the change of narrative, White appears to have more control over the longer narrative here. The plot is tight, the beats playing out powerfully and with a conviction that rarely fails. More than that, the personal feel of this story is more powerful than before, with Donne’s estranged family adding an unexpected poignancy to this thrilling tale of long kept secrets exploding into violence after decades of silence. His sister is a sympathetic contrast to Donne, while his mother – slowly deteriorating from Alzheimer’s disease and focussed only on the most terrible moments from her past – is convincing and heartbreaking.

We’re suckers at Crime Scene Scotland for the kind of crime stories that reach back into the past. Suckers too for the truly personal crime stories, the kind that have an immediately emotional affect upon the protagonists. Here, the Donne family are clearly connected to events that took place decades before Jackson’s birth, and White drip-feeds us that story between the pay-off that intrudes on Jackson’s life in a violent and bloody manner.

The book is designed to ramp up the tension and fast. Without his PI license – revoked following the events of When One Man Dies – Jackson Donne is just some guy drinking his life away, working at a bar, surviving but not really living. So when he becomes involved in the deadly game of cat and mouse that involves not just him, but his estranged family, the pressure is piled on. Without a license – he’s like early Matt Scudder, not really a PI but doing “favours for friends” – he cannot call on the same resources he once had. Suddenly Jackson is just some guy… and he’s just some guy caught up in a hellish situation.

The novel twists and turns beautifully. White has not only become comfortable with the novel length work, but also with himself: there is a conviction here that sells the action. The writing is cleaner and more crisp than in When One Man Dies. And Jackson feels more believable as a person than he did in the debut. Although he’d gone through a great deal before and during When One Man Dies, here we really see a man whose world has been put through the ringer, who is almost ready just to give up and crawl into the nearest beer bottle. And more, we see a man whose very soul won’t allow him to do that. The added family portrait may have something to do with that, and it’s clear that White’s focus has shifted more definitely towards the personal. There is a level of emotional realism to the character that helps move White’s writing up a level from very good indeed to, quite simply, great.

The Evil that Men Do achieves everything a second novel needs to do: it expands not merely on the fictional world and the emotional life of the series protagonist, but also on the author’s skill and focus. White is shaping up to be a novelist worthy of a committed following, and at Crime Scene Scotland, we’re looking forward to seeing what Jackson does next.

Russel D McLean for CrimeSceneScotland, 14/09/08