Revolver: Duane Swierczynski

“She gets the eerie feeling that this it it-that Philadelphia has lured her back home to trap her, like one of those fly-eating plants.”

Revolver, written by Duane Swierczynski, goes back and forth through three separate timelines to follow three generations of a Philadelphia Polish-American family through a narrative of disturbingly unsolved crimes. In 1964-1965, white police officer, Stan Walczak, teamed with black officer George Wildey during race riots, unknowingly triggers the attention of some powerful people when he begins helping Wildey with an investigation of heroin use in the city. In 1995, Stan’s son, Jim Walczak, haunted by the unsolved murder of his father, has an opportunity for revenge, and in 2015, Jim’s adopted daughter, Audrey, struggling to finish her thesis in forensic science, begins reinvestigating the unsolved murder of her grandfather, Stan Walczak.

revolver

The author takes us into the lives of the Walczak family through their ties to the Philadelphia PD. The book opens in 1965 with officers Walczak and Wildey waiting in a North Philly bar for a snitch who never arrives. It’s a powerful beginning which then segues to 1995 and picks up with homicide detective, Jim Walczak. It’s through Jim’s discussions with his son, that we know that Stan Walczak was murdered, and that the crime remains, officially, unsolved. Jim Walczak is about to investigate a case which will haunt him–the rape and murder of a young female journalist.

In the third timeline, 2015, Jim Walczak is retired, but his two sons, Cary and Stas, are both police officers. Audrey, the black sheep of the family, studying to be a forensic scientist, flies into Philadelphia to attend a memorial ceremony for her long-deceased, grandfather, Stan Walczak. Estranged from her family, Audrey hasn’t been home in years, and when she decides to start digging into her grandfather’s unsolved murder, she very quickly discovers that the established narrative about the crime is fundamentally untrue….

Swierczynski novels, and regular readers of this blog know that I’m a fan of this author, are always highly readable. I read this is a couple of sittings, juggling timelines and unsolved crimes in my head. The novel argues that the present is impacted by the past, and that is certainly true in the case of the Walczak family. Moving back and forth through time, we see how the male police officers in the Walczak family sacrifice home life–not for career concerns but due to the sheer dark weight of the crimes they investigate. Some scenes show the Walczak males coming home at night after facing scenes of horror, and then they have to switch gears and pretend to be ‘normal’ for their wives and children who, wrapped in a cocoon of safety, are largely oblivious. Jim Walczak copes with the two vastly different areas of his life by understanding that there’s an “Outer Jim,” and an “Inner Jim.” But that doesn’t stop him from wondering how his father coped with juggling police work and family life.

He wishes he could ask his father how he did it. The whole family thing. Granted, his pop was a career patrolman. He wasn’t obsessing over homicides. But even towards the end of his career, when they assigned him to the worst district in the city, Stan Walczak was there. He was present. Drinking tomato juice and laughing with Jim before school in the morning. Waking up before he got home from school to fix him a snack. Taking his boy to the Phillies games. (When was the last time you took your kids to a ball game?) His pop never talked about cases. Somehow he left it all in the squad car.

Written in the author’s inimitable style, tension blended with relaxed humor, over the course of this story of power, corruption and duty to crime enforcement, the history of three generations of the same family unfolds. We see sons who identify with their fathers; sons who want to be involved and solve the crimes their fathers can’t. It’s in this fashion that three generations of Walczaks, tied to the past, pay a price for their commitment to the police department.

As an aside, the author dedicated this book to his relative Philadelphia police officer, Joseph T. Swierczynski, “who was gunned down by a gangster” in 1919. So the echoes of crimes in the past and how they impact the present continue in a real-life domino effect. Once again, as in Swierczynski’s fantastic novel, Canary (and there’s a connection between Canary and Revolver,) the plot is firmly set in the author’s native Philadelphia, so the plot is steeped in history–the good and the bad sides of a city that Swierczynski obviously cares about.

This author has an intuitive knack of creating fiction that reflects the pulse of modern America. Revolver addresses, through the lives of its troubled characters, the very personal cost of serving as an undervalued cop in society. For this reader, Swierczynski is one of the most exciting names in American crime fiction. Always unpredictable, he never churns out old plots with new titles, and you can never guess where his next book is going to take you.

Review copy

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17 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Swierczynski Duane

17 responses to “Revolver: Duane Swierczynski

  1. I’d like to try something by this author at some point. His books sound genuinely exhilarating and a cut above the norm, plus you clearly rate him very highly. (I think Emma’s been reading him recently as well as I noticed his name on her list of current reads.) Is there one in particular you would recommend to me?

  2. I’m goi g to get this one as a gift for my husband who likes crime fiction but finds a lot of it rather predictable. This does seem well above the normal pap.

  3. The combination of past and present makes this sound quite different from the average crime novel. I haven’t read any of his work yet either, like Jacqui, but it sounds like I should give him a go.

  4. I’ve got Canary and this one, but something about this storyline appeals more – I’m a big fan of books featuring cold cases, and this sounds similar, as it digs into the past. I’d been planning on reading this one soon, but after reading your review (I always find your opinions reliable!) I’m now really keen to get into it. On another note, I’ve just started Tim Baker’s Fever City which also moves back and forward in time, and I’m impressed by his writing. He’s in similar territory to James Ellroy, although it’s a faster read. I suspect he’s a fan. I’ll definitely get to Canary at one point, too. Great review, Guy.

  5. Stories that cover multiple timelines are very popular these days. They seem popular in so many genres.

    It sounds like Swierczynski combines this with a lot of good literary attributes. Thus this book sounds good.

  6. Reminds me a bit of some early Pelecanos books.

  7. I’ll read it, of course. I still have one on the shelf but I’m going to be a completist as far as he’s concerned.

    My billet about Hell & Gone and Point & Shoot will come soon.

  8. Alright, alright already! I’ll put him on the list. You and Emma do praise him so very highly.

    Why Canary?

    Interesting comparison by Vicky to early Pelecanos (I’ve reviewed his first at mine, haven’t read more yet though I hope to at some stage). I can see it, though Swierczynski sounds more fun (Pelecanos is very good, but I don’t think he quite aims for fun in that way).

  9. I liked Pelacanos but as I said to Vicky, Swierczynski novels are in a class of their own. This author has comic book roots which show, I think, although not so much in this latest book. He’s mercurial, and his crime novels has a nimble quality that exceeds genre whereas all the Pelacanos I’ve read are good but standard crime.

    I haven’t read The Blonde (Emma has) and while I’d try to sell the Charlie Hardie trilogy to anyone who’ll listen, some people find a trilogy a tall order to start with. Canary, IMO, shows all the author’s talent. You think it’s a standard crime novel and WHAM he hits you in the back of the head with surprises. Again there’s that comic book hint. Plus the main character is a phenomenal heroine. Another American Everyman (woman in this case) like Hardie who is forced, by extreme circumstance, to dig deep, in order to survive. The author seems to be saying that we may live these mundane lives but we all have hidden capabilities–back to that comic book thing.

  10. I’ve never been tempted to pick him up so far, but this one sounds like I would like it. I’m reading The Killer Inside Me at the moment. Very good.

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