In a leafy Indianapolis neighborhood, Jamie Gabriel, a wholesome 12-year-old boy fond of Green Day, Harry Potter, and bobblehead dolls, heads off on his morning paper route. And never comes back. Fourteen months pass and the cops fail to uncover any leads, not that they’re trying all that hard. For Paul and Carol Gabriel, lingering uncertainty about their son’s fate becomes an unimaginable nightmare, one that veteran screenwriter David Levien nonetheless imagines with icy, almost sadistic precision in his thriller City of the Sun.
A writer who takes dead, calculated aim at our deepest fears needs to make it worth the discomfort. And for approximately two-thirds of this novel, Levien emphatically does. With their house silent and their marriage crumbling, the Gabriels approach a private investigator to find out what happened to Jamie. Ex-cop Frank Behr, who is mourning a terrible loss of his own, reluctantly takes the case, understanding that Jamie’s trail has gone cold and that the boy is almost certainly dead. Behr begins his long-shot search by walking the streets of the Gabriels’ neighborhood, methodically knocking on doors, interviewing early-morning joggers and batty old women, doing the kind of sleuthing legwork that is surprisingly fun to read about.
Also fun to read about are the novel’s scuzzy frontline bad guys: a scrawny psychopath named Rooster, who is obsessed with bodybuilding; and his slobbish sidekick, Tad, who is addicted to meth, hopelessly in love with a stripper, and just possibly in possession of a tiny, underdeveloped conscience. In the background of the seedy house they share, locked in a bedroom and hiding behind an upturned mattress, we catch a fleeting, skin-crawling glimpse of Jamie, although what these sleazebags intend to do with him remains unclear.
And when we find out, it’s devastating — not because Jamie’s story is so gruesome (though it certainly is), but because this previously excellent book suddenly falls apart. Why do thrillers so regularly collapse toward the end? Perhaps because it’s easier to dream up hideous crimes than it is to bring them to realistic, emotionally satisfying conclusions. After 200 pages of top-shelf suspense writing, Levien abruptly starts throwing out ever more absurd twists, exotic location shots, and silly villains. Apparently deciding he has exhausted the dramatic potential of the Midwest, Levien sends Behr off on a cockeyed road trip to Mexico for some gunplay, scummy brothel action, and a showdown with a foppish Latin pedophile. As Behr roars out of Indy in his burgundy Toronado, all of the novel’s hard-won credibility goes flying out the window. B