Set in author Duane Swierczynski’s native Philadelphia, Canary is a topical, tightly written crime novel that explores and questions the ethics of using civilians as undercover confidential informers in the violent world of narcotics. And if anyone thinks that the scenarios in the novel may seem to push credibility, they don’t. The use of untrained confidential informers (CIs) is largely unregulated and considering the risks taken and the skill of duplicity required, highly dangerous. News stories weaved into the plot about murdered CIs and corrupt cops are true, and author Swierczynski repeatedly mines the dark history of some of Philadelphia’s crisis neighborhoods as background for this latest explosive crime novel.
Sarie Holland, an Honours student, a serious, intelligent girl, a self-professed “lightweight,” who stays away from alcohol binges and drugs, attends a party the night before Thanksgiving and then finds herself giving a lift to a fellow student named D. Turns out that D is on a drugs run in South Phillie to his supplier, a winner known as Chuckie Morphine. Thanks to information from confidential informants, undercover narcotics officer, Wildey has Chuckie’s place of business under surveillance.
But a snitch swore that a guy at this address is doing a lot of slinging with college kids. Word is he’s a midlevel caseworker who calls himself “Chuckie Morphine” and specializes in small-time trappers who work the universities, sometimes doing direct sales to kids who are leery of driving to the Badlands or Pill Hill. Years ago this whole neighborhood–Passyunk–used to be solid working class, maybe a little sketchy in places. Wildey remembers those days. But now it has gastropubs and consignment shops and pop-up restaurants and all that other hipster catnip. Kids feel safe popping down here.
Things go wrong, and while D does a runner, Sarie is picked up by for questioning by Wildey. Sarie, caught with D’s drug stash, is threatened with being charged with possession, and takes the offer to “work off the charges.”
–Okay, then there’s the other way this can go. We can’t just let you walk out of here, not with what you had in your car. The good news is, you can work off the charges. Work hard enough, as a matter of fact, and it’s like this never happened.
–What, do you mean, like, intern with the police?
Both cops turn to smirk at each other, not even trying to hide it. I feel my cheeks burn. Fuck you both.
–No not an intern, Honors Girl. You can help us another way.
–You can become a confidential informant, and help us catch the scuzbags who sell drugs to your classmates.
–A confidential what?
They explain it to me. They want me to become a CI–a confidential informant. Only Wildey and his boss would know my identity. In short, they’re asking me to be a snitch. In Philadelphia. Where snitches are killed on a regular basis.
Sarie’s naiveté along with reluctance to have her freshly widowed drug counselor father dragged into the police station, lead her to take the deal, thinking that she can still attend her classes, and keep her father out of the picture. But soon the pressure is on for Sarie to produce dealers, and while she tries to outsmart the cops, Wildey, whose other confidential informants are disappearing off the streets, turns up the heat on Sarie.
For about 70% of Canary, the plot, initially presented in the form of a letter of explanation to Sarie’s dead mother, seemed fairly standard, and by that I mean not Swierczynski’s usual fare. This is an author whose solid comic book roots appear invasively in his earlier work. Take the Charlie Hardie trilogy (Fun and Games, Hell and Gone, & Point & Shoot), for example–a story of an overweight, guilt-ridden, former police consultant, now house-sitter who takes a gig in S. Cal only to find that he stumbles into a scenario created by violent Hollywood Star Whackers. As the trilogy progresses, Swierczynksi pushes the reader’s imagination with conspiracy theories, power brokers and increasingly bizarre scenarios, and if we allow our paranoias free reign, all this might just be possible.
Duane Swierczynski is a master of pulp, and yet Canary initially seemed to be a fairly standard, although good, crime yarn fused with topical real-life cases of bent cops and dead confidential informers who habituate the shady world of the Badlands. Sarie seems to be a regular Honors Student caught between law enforcement and the dangerous world of drug dealing. In other words, Canary seemed to be minus that Swierczynski spark–that exotic, exciting fusion of crime and pulp which raises his books from the zone of the ordinary to the archetypal. The last section of Canary, however, ambushes in its explosive intensity, for as the story progresses, Sarie morphs into a fabulous, unexpected heroine–just the type of character I’d expect from this author.
I’m not going to say a great deal about the plot as to reveal much more would spoil the experience for the potential readers out there. But I will say that once again I was tremendously impressed. Swierczynski crafts a story that initially seems to be taking one path, and yet as the plot progresses, Sarie, yes I know, a character in a book, seems to grow a life of her own apart from the already established plot; she becomes an awesome heroine who refuses to be defined by the role assigned to her by Wildey or the drug dealers she must fool. It’s almost as though Sarie grows and develops beyond the author’s original design, but that simply can’t be true, as by the end of the novel, we realize that the narrative arc was created well in advance.
Finally a note about the author’s characters. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the author’s characters: Jamie DeBroux from Severance Package, Charlie Hardie (Fun & Games, Hell & Gone, Point & Shoot), and Sarie Holland are ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, but that’s not true. These are extraordinary characters who are masked by ordinary hum-drum lives, and when the unpredictable erupts, these formidable characters rise, refuse victimhood, and fight back with whatever means necessary. The extraordinary human masked by blandness, even weakness (in Sarie’s case, her weakness appears to be her privilege and her naiveté) taps the subliminal archetypal dream we all harbor, and this is an extremely potent weapon in Swierczynski’s authorial arsenal. It’s in these character creations that Duane Swierczynski mines those comic book roots. Charlie Hardie can’t be described as anything close to a comic book super hero–he’s an over-weight, out-of-shape, middle aged, washed-up piece of human wreckage, but when placed in extraordinary circumstances, he shirks off that seeming ordinariness and rises to meet the challenge of survival, subverting his victim status as he fights back. In Sarie’s case, as a young college student she’s an unknown quantity, a blank page. As the plot progresses and Sarie’s nature slowly evolves into her new circumstances, we realize that she is a formidable human being–yes hampered by youth and inexperience, but all that’s about to change. Sarie, as the theoretical weakest link in the drug-enforcement chain, is primed to be eaten alive–either by the powers who desire to control her (the cops) or the dark world of narcotics that she is about to infiltrate. Sarie, who really should be outclassed by both the cops and the dealers, is yet another character who eschews victimhood, and we find ourselves cheering for this spunky heroine as she navigates her new role. Swierczynski’s impressive plot development shows incredible imaginative skill, and some seeds sown early and innocuously at the beginning of the novel, rear to powerful significance at the conclusion.
The Civic speeds past some of the most depressing vistas Philadelphia has to offer Abandoned fields of industrial much and a few struggling refineries. Burst of fire in the distance. Smoke. Weedy swamps and dump sites. Must be a shock to the tourist when they land and hail a can to the City of Brotherly Love and feel like they’re pulling into the set of Bladerunner.