Four Corners of Night is so many things that the Nerd honestly doesn’t know where to begin. It’s a sober portrait of an unnamed industrial Ohio city (though very Toledo-esque) during and after its heyday. It’s a late night police ride-along through the mean streets on par with similar scenes in Richard Price’s Lush Life or (dare I say it?) Kent Anderson’s Night Dogs. It’s a story of the power of friendship, the pain of loss, the fear of not knowing. It’s about fathers and daughters and the frightening intensity of the strength of that bond. But for all that hoidy-toidy shit I just said, Craig Holden’s masterpiece (a safer than hell statement, trust the Nerd) never lets up in the tension department and never flinches as it painfully goes full fucking dark in the final third.
We follow two longtime friends and fellow policemen, Mack Steiner and Bank Arbaugh, as they investigate the disappearance of a twelve-year-old girl from her rough east side neighborhood. Throughout the investigation we flash back to seven years earlier when Bank’s daughter went missing, the two missing persons cases eventually starting to share some similarities. If it sounds like the Nerd is being ridiculously vague, you’re right, and when you read this beast – which I no-shit implore you to do, dear reader – you’ll kiss the hem of my unwashed, ratty bathrobe for keeping mum on the plot points.
Holden’s prose strikes that insanely tricky balance of being alternately evocative and direct while all the while managing to keep the seams from showing. Though told in first person, we come to believe that Mack Steiner could actually narrate the story this eloquently, have such insight into what other characters’ feelings might be, that he could tell a story this well – a point on which you often have to suspend disbelief about in first person books outside of a Philip Roth or Russell Banks novel. Holden has a knack for creating tension in the small moments, in the familiar, like the quiet indignities of a lonely childhood or just not knowing what to say to a grieving parent, making those scenes raise your blood pressure just as much as the more conventional life-or-death stakes moments of the traditional crime novel.
Actually, “conventional” and “traditional” really shouldn’t raise their perfectly adequate heads in this review when talking about the crime genre (or really any aspect of the novel, for that matter) because Holden has such a firm grasp on his plot, on his straight-up fucking storytelling, that you can’t really see those creaky giveaways and coincidences that make up your usual mystery. You also won’t find a beat down or a car chase every forty pages to keep you thrilled. Holden has crafted a very complex mystery with a fucking amazing and heartbreaking reveal, yet the unfolding is slyer than, the author never letting you see just how impossibly clever he had to be to come up with such an ambitious yet never, you know, “big” story.
“Ambition” is another funny word to use in reviewing Four Corners of Night because it feels so intensely personal, so completely human-sized. Of course, this is because of the characters of Mack and Bank and how closely we get to know them. These are not super cops with brilliant minds and amazing aim with their service pistols. They are deeply flawed men with recognizable families and relationships trying to do their best. Their undeniable humanity and frailty makes some of their actions in the book crush your heart all the more but…nah, I’m not gonna get into it. Find that shit out for yourself, dear reader, toot-sweet!
There have been many fantastic books in the genre about missing girls (Gone, Baby, Gone from Dennis Lehane came out only a year before Four Corners of Night dropped) but this is without a doubt the best I’ve ever read. This is a great book, a recent classic, a term that, for the Nerd, puts it in the company of Daniel Woodrell’s Tomato Red and Richard Price’s Clockers. Shit, I’ll make it official: even up there with Kent Anderson’s Night Dogs.