Grant Jerkins’ The Ninth Step gets to the heart of some my favorite themes in crime like few novels I’ve ever read. Guilt, obsession, redemption, and the difference between protecting yourself and protecting your family are all organically breached and beautifully handled in this tough, tight and agonizing character-driven thriller by a dude whose previous shit I need to go back and get hip to right fucking quick.
It’s about two people: Helen, the quiet veterinarian trying to keep her rampant alcoholism secret from the few who know her and Edgar, the nerdy math teacher whose wife is killed by Helen in a hit-and-run accident. Helen covers up the crime and, when suicide fails, starts going to meetings and getting clean. When it comes around to the ninth step, wherein you’re supposed to make amends, she decides to confess to Edgar her crime. But when push comes to shove she can’t do it and instead starts a relationship with the grieving man, making it her mission in life to make him happy again. Then a note arrives asking if Edgar knows that she killed his wife…
This blackmail shit doesn’t happen until you’re over halfway through the novel but since it says as much on the description on the back of the book, I’m okay with spilling the fucking beans as well. Besides, you hardly notice the lack of genre tropes until then because Jerkins brings us into the murky minds of these characters so effortlessly. My favorite part of the whole thing was an early section describing how Helen gets through her day before she bottoms out, the rules she sets for herself on when she can and can’t drink.
When the crime shit finally does happen, hoo-fucking-boy does Jerkins know how to let it rip in the suspense department. The scene where she gets the aforementioned note in the mail is one of the most agonizingly orchestrated scenes in recent memory. The Nerd also particularly appreciated Jerkins’ determination to keep his plot relatively grounded, never making his story too “big” for the wonderful simplicity of the premise he has constructed. Then, thankfully, there’s Jerkins’ blessed willingness to take his story to the dark places it needs – nay fucking deserves – to go.
If you’re not one who likes to wrestle and identify with characters stuck in impossible places morally, this ain’t your book, dear reader. But then again, if that were true you wouldn’t bother reading a review by some asshole who calls himself the “Nerd of Noir,” I would imagine. The Ninth Step will scrape at your insides like you’re trying shit out the rusty forks you fused together during last night’s meth binge…and then swallowed for some reason, I guess. But once you’ve passed this nasty creation into the filth-stained bowl, you’ll feel like a better person for it.