All the taut intrigue and compelling personalities of a classic, courtroom thriller combined with the twists and turns of an engrossing murder mystery in a Canadian setting.
Published by Rogue Phoenix Press
Reviewed by Nancy A. Dafoe
In the vein of the pulsing arterial found in John Grisham’s crime/legal thrillers, Eric Keller’s Half-Built Houses is fast paced, meticulously developed, filled with plot twists, and the kind of complicated characters that keep you thinking about them long after you close the pages. Sex, drugs, and alcohol may lead to the predictable crime, but little else about Keller’s novel is predictable.
Keller’s familiarity with the law and court cases is apparent and the plot moves seamlessly through to an unexpected conclusion. More than a riveting, criminal procedural taking place in Calgary, however, Half-Built Houses offers subtle but significant social commentary on the issues of homelessness, the long-lasting damages of bullying, and the inequalities in class and social structures.
Charley Ewanuschuk, a homeless character accused of the murder of a young woman, stands at the center of the story, but Half-Built Houses is as much the story of Brian Cox, the charming but struggling young lawyer trying his first major criminal case. We know the crime in the opening pages as victim, Natalie Peterson, lies dying in the white snow, but Keller allows the reader to see into the characters’ heads and actions, shifting perspectives from the murdered woman to the suspected killer, to the defense lawyer to the Crown Prosecutor Clay Matthews, and the hardened detective Randall Jenkins on the trail of something that stinks. Lurking in the shadows, Charley is not as alone as he believes. Hugh Young and his son Jason may have wealth and power, but they, too, operate in the shadows. We come to know these characters’ backstories and circumstances leading up to their devastating encounter.
Highly visual, readers will feel as if they are watching this drama play out. With no false notes, Keller’s novel feels right even when everything is going wrong, down to the lurking ambiguity.
After the car had been towed away, Charley had gone back to the basement, but he heard sirens and had to flee before he could collect his belongings. Knowing he would stand out as an oddity wandering about in a rich residential area as people started leaving their homes for work, he headed back across the river to the downtown core where the homeless merely blended into the cement. There he numbly walked the icy streets before settling into an ATM kiosk to warm up and rest.
Sitting on the wet floor, he did a quick inventory. He still had his good coat, two cheeseburgers, four dollars, and shoes, but no socks, gloves, or hat. It was thirty below and he had nowhere to go, and he could already feel the dirty slush on the floor soaking through his jeans. Over all the years he had been in Calgary, Charley had been in some extremely difficult spots, but this was one of the worst situations he had faced.
As he pulled one of the slightly squashed cheeseburgers out of his pocket, the key to the cheap padlock he had put on the basement door fell onto the floor. He picked it up. Despite being twenty-five years old, this was the only key he had ever owned. He remembered the joy he felt when he closed the lock for the first time. It was more than simply having a place of his own; it was a sense of survivor's pride because he could look past making it through each day and ponder a future for himself. Now he realized he could not be found carrying the key, so he slipped it into the slot in the bank machine, the slot where people threw away their receipts showing how much money they had in their account.
He was only able to stay in the kiosk for an hour before a security guard found him. The guard clearly did not want to send the pathetic man out into the exceptionally harsh cold, but he sheepishly said that the bank employees would be showing up soon, and they would give him grief if they found someone sleeping next to the bank machine. Charley left without a word.
Having nowhere else to go, he instinctively walked to the day labourer corner. Because the weather was so bad and he was there so early, he got picked up right away to shovel snow. Charley had worked for the boss before, and the man took pity on him, giving him a good pair of gloves and a toque.
~ * ~
Jenkins was checking missing person reports when Wilson strutted into the office and dropped an enlarged printout of a library card on his desk. The picture on the card was of a thin, unsmiling young man with thick glasses and messy hair. It matched the description the neighbour at the crime scene had given them. Wilson sat down and said, "Our basement squatter has a name. Charley Ewanuschuk. The address and phone number he gave are fakes though."
"Did anyone at the library know him?"
"Sort of. One of the librarians said the guy's been coming in about once a week for years, but she doesn't think he's ever said a word to anybody. She did say he was cleaner than the other homeless people and never had a late book, so he has that going for him."
"A name and a picture. We've found people with less." Jenkins, now feeling hopeful this would be a quicker case than he had anticipated, stood up and grabbed his coat. "Let's go check the usual spots."
~ * ~
Even though he had been extremely tired and his feet had screamed with cold, Charley had been content to push a shovel all day as the mundane, physical work was relaxing and allowed him to ponder his situation. By the end of the day, he had forced himself to conclude it was not hopeless. He could not go back to the house he had been using, but that did not mean he could not find another abandoned construction site to use. It would take some time, but he had time; he had little else, but he had time. When the work was done, he was driven back to the corner, given sixty dollars, and told to keep the gloves and the hat. It was enough money to get a room at the hostel for the night. Life would continue to be hard, but it would not be impossible.
As he started walking away, a truck pulled up, unloading another crew of day labourers, and one of the workers called out to him, "Hey, you. Guy who never talks."
He recognized the man as a regular at the corner whom he had worked with a few times. He pointed at himself questioningly.
"Yeah, you. Just thought you should know that the cops were out here this morning showing your picture around. You may want to lay low for a few days."
The man knew Charley well enough not to expect a response, so he turned to jog after his friends, leaving Charley alone on the frozen sidewalk. Renewed panic struck at him, easily pushing away the optimism he had gained throughout the day. He had not even considered the police would look for him. He had always seen himself as a mere visitor moving about beneath the notice of the real inhabitants of the city, so the thought that someone would look for him never occurred to him. Charley had never been to jail, but he had overheard much about the place from day labourers, and being locked up was one of his greatest fears among an impressive list of fears. It was not actually being deprived of his freedom so much as being constantly surrounded by people with no privacy or reprieve that he knew would be an unimaginable hell for him. He could not go to jail.