4.5 stars out of 5
The title of this book says it all: It takes place in Chicago, and if the story got any darker, I probably would have stopped reading after the first few chapters. It was unsettling, upsetting and, in some respects, unsatisfying - but it's also an outstanding work. Thanks to the publisher (via NetGalley) for the opportunity to read it in exchange for a review.
Ray Nelson is more than a bit of a physical freak - never loved by his now-gone parents and shunned by neighbors in his apartment building. His drug-addicted sister, Stephanie, pops in from time to time (primarily to raid his wallet), and he mostly rebuffs the efforts of the young girl next door, Natalie, to befriend him. In essence, he's a virtual recluse; the only thing that seems to keep him going is something that just as easily could kill him: organized street brawling in the dark of the night, earning enough money to pay what few bills he has.
Over the years, he's tried to keep his sister out of trouble, and as he sees Natalie head into mid-teen years, he grows concerned about the bad neighborhood and what will happen to her in a place where tomorrow is no better than a repeat of oday. That takes a more sinister turn with the appearance of a white van whose driver is looking for - and finding - young victims. Ray wants to help his sister and is determined to protect Natalie, but he's got plenty of secrets in his own past that threaten his good intentions. There are several unexpected twists as the story unfolds, none of them pleasant (but then this is a dark mystery, after all).
The sadness and despair that permeate notwithstanding, this is a hard book to put down. I wasn't able to find a page count anywhere, but I finished it in three days of very little spare time for reading, so it isn't very long. The ending brings (surprise!) another smack in the gut, but also a tiny glimmer of hope. Is it enough? I'll never tell - you'll just have to read it and decide for yourself.
Breaker: A Windy City Dark Mystery by Richard Thomas (Alibi/Random House, January 2016).