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DRINK THE TEA by Thomas Kaufman: Book Review

A foster child without a name or birthdate.  A man who may or may not have fathered a child.  A missing young woman. They all come together in this fast-paced, hard-boiled mystery by Thomas Kaufman.

Willis Gidney, a name he made up himself, has had a tough life. Abandoned by his parents as an infant, he spent years in foster homes and state institutions that might have been found between the pages of a Charles Dickens novel.  The only thing that saved him from a life of crime was the intervention of a Washington, D.C. police captain.

During his first ten years Willis learned to lie, steal, play truant, and fight.  During his years with Captain Shadrack Davies, he learned to love books, slowly developed a moral code, and found a career for himself.

Now Willis is trying to make it as a private detective on the tough streets of our capital; Willis thinks its initials stand for Dysfunctional City. He’s approached by an old friend, jazz saxophonist Steps Jackson, to find a young woman Jackson may or may not have fathered twenty-five years ago.

Willis manages to track down the woman whom Jackson says is the mother of the young woman he’s looking for.  Collette Andrews, the woman who had a one-night affair with Steps Jackson, is now cool, beautiful, married to a wealthy State Department diplomat, and refusing to acknowledge that she’s the mother of Bobbie Jackson.  She demands that Willis leave her house.  A few hours later she calls Willis, saying she needs to talk to him, but when he arrives at her house the police are there and she’s dead.  And Willis is under arrest.

There’s a lot of plot in this debut novel. The agri conglomerates come in for bashing, as do corrupt congressmen, suspect political donations, inept or uncaring welfare officials, and mysterious “abandoned” city rental properties that are using extraordinary amounts of electricity each month.

And then there are the mobsters who first try to cajole, then threaten and beat up Willis, and finally try to force him off the road.  He’s used to the hard-knock life, but this is getting out of hand.

On the positive side, there’s a new romantic interest in his life. Lillian McClellan, cyber sleuth, wears her hair in dreads, has dimples, and smells of sandalwood.  Who could resist?  Willis tries for a while, but it’s a lost cause; he’s smitten.

Thomas Kaufman is an Emmy award-winning cinematographer, and I’m guessing he likes short, quick shots because that’s how he writes.  It can get a bit confusing, as Drink the Tea goes back and forth from Willis’ childhood to the present and back again, all in the same chapter.   It can be frustrating when you’re trying to find the name of a character who appeared in a scene several chapters back or trying to remember just how a particular minor character is related to Willis.

But that’s a small quibble about a very well-written, fast-moving novel.  It is not, however, a book for those who like cozies; it’s more a book that will make you shake your head about the cruelties people inflict on each other. Drink the Tea won the PWA’s (Private Eye Writers of America) award for the Best First Private Eye Novel in 2010.

You can read more about Thomas Kaufman at his web site.

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