It’s a bit of a risk for a mystery writer to use a Raymond Chandler excerpt as an epigraph: how can a reader help but compare what follows to Chandler’s bravura introductory words? Fortunately, Gerry Boyle has done himself no harm, as “Port City Crossfire” is rife with the clean, decidedly non-floral-scented sentences that would pass the master’s sniff test.

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“Port City Crossfire”– the third Brandon Blake title to be published although it was written first and is being promoted as book one in the series – begins with newly minted Portland police officer Blake and his senior partner making the nightly rounds. The dispatcher reports that a guy wearing a mask and holding a gun has been spotted leaving a bar in the Old Port. Blake finds him, and during a faceoff in an alley, he tells the guy more than once to drop the gun; when the guy doesn’t, Blake feels that he has no choice but to shoot. It’s while he’s peeling off his dead adversary’s mask that Blake realizes he has killed not a man holding a real gun but a teenager holding a toy one.

Pending an attorney general’s investigation into the death of 16-year-old Thatcher Rawlings, Blake is put on paid administrative leave; his case is not helped by the fact that he forgot to turn on his body cam during the confrontation, which would have supported his claim that he was acting in self-defense. What’s more, the card for the GoPro that Thatcher was wearing on his head when he died is missing. Without work to occupy his mind, Blake finds his conscience consuming him, although when he replays his exchange with Thatcher, he gets stuck on this question: why wouldn’t someone have obeyed an armed cop telling him to drop his piece?

Thatcher’s mother, a TV crew, and some teenagers who want to show solidarity with the victim all flock to the South Portland marina where Blake docks the boat that he calls home. Blake also receives a visit from Thatcher’s young friend Amanda, who arrives wielding a knife. Before the police take her away she tells Blake that Thatcher had “stuff going on.” If readers figure out what happened with Thatcher a few pages before Blake does, they surely won’t foresee the final showdown that loops together the two dramas that “Port City Crossfire” embroils him in. As for the novel’s second drama, it involves a lost diary found by Blake’s girlfriend and his excursions, including by sea, to get to the bottom of one of its more puzzling entries.

Boyle, a Mainer who also writes the long-running Jack McMorrow series, has been in the game for almost three decades and has developed dialogue chops and a talent for leaving a scene on a piquant note. Some Chandleresque lines notwithstanding (Blake: “Chief said it. I’m a lightning rod. Stand near me, you could get hurt”), Boyle understands that a hard-boiled cop in the modern era would be a walking anachronism, so he has Blake do something wholly contemporary: mull over his childhood damage. Rest assured, Blake’s introspection doesn’t bog down the story’s central mysteries. One left unsolved: how did “Port City Crossfire” make it to press with so many typos in it? That’s one for Philip Marlowe.

Nell Beram is a former Atlantic Monthly staff editor and coauthor of Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies. Her work has recently appeared in Salon and Shelf Awareness and at the blog Little Old Lady Comedy.


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