Mission Flats (Dell 2003) by William Landay is a crime fiction novel that I read and enjoyed several years ago. I recommended this book to Maili some time back and asked her if she read it, would she mind doing a review for me? So, here we are…enjoy.
Missions Flats opens with the narrator’s vivid description of a pregnant woman smiling as she relaxes on an air ring in the water under the sun. The narrator then switches to a different time and place where a Boston police officer enters a supposedly closed bar late at night, not realising he’s about to face a horror, which will set off a domino effect lasting some thirty years.
Sets in present day, we learn that our narrator is Ben Truman, the 24-year-old police chief of a small Maine town – Versailles (correct pronunciation: Ver-SALES). As he explains: during a home visit from the University of Boston where he’d been studying History, he saw how Alzheimer’s was confusing and distressing his mother and how hard his stern police chief father was struggling to cope.
He couldn’t bear seeing his mother in distress, not after what she did for him when he was growing up; not while knowing his father wouldn’t care for her the way Ben felt he should. So he quit the university and returned home. He reasoned he could always return to the university once it was over. However, shortly after she passed away, Ben’s father retired. The job no one wanted went to Ben, making him the youngest police chief in the country.
Ben isn’t happy with being a police chief as he didn’t want the job, but for reasons we will soon learn, had to accept. In spite of this, he speaks of leaving Versailles for a better world out there, but he doesn’t follow it up. Locals seem to believe he wouldn’t ever leave, which bothers Ben. He’s stuck in a place among a tangle of emotions; his grief over his late mother, his awkwardness with his emotionally inaccessible father, and his quiet resentment towards the job and life in Versailles. So, why doesn’t he just leave, anyway? This is what made me read on.
While patrolling during one morning, Ben finds a decomposing corpse in one of lake-side summer cabins which he regularly checks every other month. He finds a piece of evidence that says this corpse is Robert Danziger, a prosecutor from Boston. Ben notifies the big boys, who quickly arrive in Versailles where they shove Chief Ben aside and take over the case.
He’s well aware they see him as a country hick who couldn’t tell the difference between elbow and arse, but he doesn’t care. Because the Danziger murder took place in Ben’s region, he’s invited to sit in at case meetings as a matter of courtesy. Almost an afterthought. He’s basically expected to sit in and say nowt. Fine by him, Ben reckons.
In one case meeting, he learns the Boston police are convinced the prime suspect is Harold Braxton, the king of a notorious run-down Boston area, Mission Flats. Braxton is a ruthless monster that kills at will, with no apparent motive or reason. The kind that shouldn’t have been born.
Furthermore, he isn’t stupid. His IQ is notoriously sky high. Not only he’s a savvy mastermind that kills, he’s involved with the trafficking of guns, drugs and bodies. Locals of Mission Flats fear him, enough to turn a blind eye to his criminal activities. Anyone who dares to stand in his way, he’ll take their life. And these locals know it.
The police then explains why they believe Braxton responsible for the Danziger murder, Danziger was about to bring in a star witness that could destroy Braxton’s home-grown empire. So the police are going after him—no matter what and how—before he could get to their star witness.
Intrigued, Ben revisits the murder scene at the lakeside cabin. Various patterns of blood splatters on walls. Traces on the floor where Danziger once lay. He couldn’t find any solid clues. Around then, a stranger appears at the cabin. When he sees what Ben had tried to do, he scolds him for contaminating vital clues. Chastised, Ben demands to know why the stranger was at the cabin. The stranger says he was curious, that’s all. Ben isn’t convinced. The stranger patiently explains:
“I told you, I’m a policeman. Well, a retired policeman. But as they say, a retired policeman is like a retired whore — she can stop working but she’ll always be a whore. We’ll always be policemen, you and I. It’s the nature of the job, Ben Truman.”
Ben learns this stranger is John Kelly, a retired Boston police detective, who’s now living at a cabin nearby. Once Ben’s assured, John is curious to know how could a police chief like Ben lack basic detecting skills. Ben explains he’s never had a chance to learn. He hasn’t been in the police force for long. Versailles isn’t exactly a breeding ground for serious crimes, anyway. John sympathetically takes him through a pace of learning how to read the murder scene around the cabin.
Sensing he could learn a lot more from John that may help him to be more involved with the Danziger case, Ben talks him into swearing in as a junior Versailles police officer to assist him with the Danziger case. They travel to Boston, right up to Mission Flats itself.
The police force accepts him as a guest, so they let him be part of various [???] relating to the Danziger case, including witnessing a police officer making a deal with a petty criminal, watching a drug raid in action, and sitting in a court hearing. There’s so much to learn. He may be unskilled and out of sorts, but he’s a quick learner.
Aware of this, John Kelly and a certain fellow detective provide assistance by explaining some details, taking him to hidden places in Mission Flats, and introducing him to various characters, ranging from officers to criminals, and some tips and tricks along the way. Ben also meets a number of lawyers including John Kelly’s own single-mother daughter, whom he gradually becomes romantically involved with.
Ben watches, listens, learns, and resonates; comes to learn that some members of the police would do almost anything to bring criminals down. If that means making an illegal move or using a shady method that would ultimately protect the innocent and the good, so be it. While Ben understands the necessity of this, he can’t help but speculate whether some may have crossed the line. If they did, how and why?
Anyhow, he also eventually realises the initial portrait of the ruthless king Harold Braxton may not be accurate. In fact, there are some details don’t seem to fit. It feels as if some are forced together, just to bring Braxton down. He isn’t sure why, even though Braxton clearly isn’t innocent. And there are two separate killing cases that increasingly puzzle him. Further he investigates, darker and more complicated his journey becomes. Even more so when he comes face to face with the legend himself: Harold Braxton.
That’s a summary of the first fifty-odd pages of this 500-page story. I should summarise the whole story, but I don’t want to because it contains quite a few twists and turns. Some surprises are predictable, sure, but some aren’t. Actually, I’m having difficulties writing this review because Mission Flats is the sort that you should read without knowing what to expect. I hope you’ll forgive me over the vague and patchy nature of this review.
When I realised the opening chapter was in present tense, I hesitated for a moment because I’m not keen on reading stories in present tense. Then I realised Keishon knows me well enough to know my likes and dislikes. I thought if she’d been after me to read Mission Flats for months, I ought to give it a chance, so I did.
As Ben narrated some significant incidents that took place during the thirty-year span, I was increasingly a bit disconcerted. The narrative style seemed unusual and jolting as it jumped between different time periods and places. When Chapter One appeared, Ben’s narration slipped into a conventional form of storytelling, now in past tense. At this point, I admit I was relaxed enough to read on. It was still a hard slog because there was something strange about Ben’s narration, but after some twenty pages, I was a goner. His story had completely sucked me in.
I increasingly sympathised with Ben while he struggled to make sense of the world the police and criminals live in, and all these codes and invisible rules they live by. He was a decent bloke who was doing as best as he can in this world. Then a surprise twist happened. This threw me out of the story. Then another and one more. My sympathy for Ben lessened almost each time, even though I still liked and respected him.
Basically, it’s not a simple and straightforward tale of crime. It’s partly a psychological drama, partly a mystery and partly a philosophical inquiry. It made me consider some certain aspects of crime and morals. Such as what is the definition of justice? What is legal and what isn’t? And if it isn’t, is it just if it’s done for the good? It’s this aspect that made Mission Flats so enjoyable, particularly this eventual realisation that there is no such thing as moral absolutism. I feel the ending enforces this.
Mission Flats does have a couple of red herrings and a few predictable moments, but you sense it’s all part of this grand plan. Especially how it built up the suspense around Harold Braxton. When Ben met with him, it became apparent that it wouldn’t stop there. There would be more to come. Is the conclusion of this grand plan what I expected? Yes and no. It’s the ‘no’ part that makes Mission Flats memorable, good and bad.
Oh, I’ll be frank: it pissed me off. Big time. IMO, Landay broke a golden rule here, but my husband—who also read this—loved it. He felt it paid off well, which didn’t please the unhappy bunny in me. “He broke the rule!” I repeatedly complained. “He broke the damn rule!”
But I have to hand it to Landay for tying all loose ends together neatly and so well. It didn’t please me, but it was still impressive, anyhow. As I’m writing this, it’s occurred to me it’s actually better than I expected. I’m still a bit upset, though. There is a major continuity error with a timeline. I checked other reviews online to see if reviewers noticed and none of them did, which made me doubt myself. Then I realised: does the continuity error affect the story, though? No. If it did, it still doesn’t matter. If you read this story, you’ll know why.
Regardless of that, I’m giving this book – considering the moral complexity of Mission Flats and the fact it’s William Landay’s debut – a B+.