The Ninth Step by Grant Jerkins

Whenever I think about no longer accepting review copies because they “get in the way” of my own reading list, I think of Grant Jerkins and immediately decide it’s better to keep on receiving them. It was by saying yes to a review copy request that I read his first novel in 2010. Now, three books later, Grant Jerkins is one of my favorite writers.

The Ninth Step, Jerkins’ third novel, was released last month by Berkley Prime Crime. It’s a fantastic read. It will especially freak you out if you’re in a twelve step program or have ever worked the steps. Yes, The ninth step of the title refers not to stairs, but to step nine of the big twelve: “Made direct amends to to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”

Edgar Woolrich is a happily married high school geometry teacher who collects Japanese puzzle boxes. Helen Patrice is a veterinarian and an alcoholic. When his obsession and her addiction cross paths the result is an intriguing story of who-done-what and who’ll-do-what next. I love Jerkins’ characters. Even though they are not always likeable, they have a realness and a warmth that makes them seem all so human. And in this case . . . oh, the humanity.

What I like about Jerkins’ novels is that they’re all so different from one another. I enjoy a good series, but it is also refreshing to read a good crime novelist who can create such solid stand alone novels that you’re not left wishing the author had written a book more like the last one.

A Very Simple Crime (2010, my review) was about a down on his luck prosecutor investigating a murder that takes him into the depths of a family’s psychological abnormalities. At the End of the Road (2011, my review) goes back in time to the summer of 1976 when a young boy witnesses an accident, tells no one, and what unfolds afterwards for the boy and others. I think of it as a coming of age novel with a creepy, dark core.

I don’t want to say that The Ninth Step is his best yet, because that makes it sound like his two previous novels weren’t up to snuff. They are. But what I especially admire about The Ninth Step is it’s black humor. I often don’t enjoy humor mixing with crime because it can seem too forced or too flip or too cruel. Jerkins uses humor in a way that acknowledges the pain of the human condition, but this humor also reveals that our pain is often the result of past choices, as well as showing the reality that we do have choices now, no matter how messed up things seem.

Here’s an example from early on in the novel, about Helen:

The self-inspection did not reveal additional damage. Externally, Helen was still quite attractive–her breasts sagged only a little; her ass, while bigger than in the past, had not succumbed to gravity and was plump in a pleasingly feminine way; and the broken capillaries that formed a haphazard Etch A Sketch across her nose and cheeks were easily concealed with modest amounts of makeup. The shell, the facade, was fine. Unfortunately, she was rotting from the inside out. Like the shiny apple that concealed the corruption of the worm deep inside. It occurred to her hungover mind that she was the perfect hybrid of Doctor Dolittle and Dorian Gray (41).

I like this example because it tells you so much about Helen: about her age, her chronic drinking, how she deals with it, her sense of humor, her denial. Her checklist is on the light side, but it hints at the tragic darkness to come. It’s avoidable, yet inevitable.

If you like suspense novels that focus on interpersonal relationships, check out The Ninth Step and Jerkins’ early novels as well. They’ll keep you in their grip and leave you thinking about the story and characters long afterwards.

The Ninth Step
Grant Jerkins
Berkley Crime Time
September 2012
Source: review copy

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