Quite a few mystery novels set in Napa Valley land at the Napa Valley Register, and most of them bear the unmistakable marks of an author who visited, decided that it’s a sexy setting, and to make sure readers know it’s Napa, they throw bottles of wine, grapevines, and maybe a winemaker into an otherwise generic and predictable story.
Craig Smith’s debut novel, “Lies That Bind” is none of these things. On the contrary, it’s original, unpredictable, lively and fresh — and it unfolds in a Napa that visitors may never see, but those of us who live here, know well. It’s a Napa where people go to Burger King and drink coffee after church on Sunday, and where some people live under bridges; it’s the Napa where people are teachers, ice cream store owners, and police officers, like Danny Garcia.
Garcia, the protagonist of “Lies” aspires to be a detective, and he’s also trying, after one failed marriage, to make a success of his new relationship, with a teacher named Carol. All of this is thrown into jeopardy, however, because Garcia, by dint of training and instinct, notices things. For instance: there are scratches of red paint on a side mirror of a wrecked blue Porsche, although officially, the driver is assumed to have lost control of his car in a no-witness accident; and, curiously, a red Porsche in the parking lot at the Catholic church, where he goes to Sunday Mass with Carol, has scratches of blue paint on its mirror.
And even stranger, a young man approaches Garcia after Mass to ask for help: a new priest, in the parish, one Father Morales, has asked for $400 a fee for premarital counseling, and the man suspects it’s a form of blackmail because the priest suspects that his fiancee is an illegal immigrant. Does the church charge for these things? No.
But $400 is bill for fixing the scratches on the mirror of the red Porsche, Garcia discovers, and the Porsche turns out to belong the bishop in Santa Rosa. What kind of a bishop is this?
This is only the tip of the mystery that unfolds in “Lies That Bind,” which is subtitled, “How do you arrest someone who doesn’t exist?”
“Napa,” Smith writes, “is a relatively low-crime city, and boredom often hitched a ride in the back seat of patrol cars,” like the one that Garcia and his younger, irreverent partner, Sean Rawlins, drive.
A routine stop — complaints of a ruckus near the Meadows retirement home — turns baffling when the two homeless men fighting over a shopping cart turn out to have warrants out for their arrest for trying to steal a million dollars in what looks like a case of identity theft.
And their crime bears a troubling resemblance to one carried out by Garcia’s own stepbrother, Tim, an alcoholic real estate agent. Only Tim defrauded their parents, who instead of pressing charges, have cut a deal: Tim goes into a rehab center, and promises never to reveal to anyone how he pulled off the deal.
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And Tim insists he hasn’t, except once, during the recovery program when he accidentally bragged about it to another patient, a man named Morales.
Garcia, with the help of Rawlins, is trying to put all of these pieces together, in between their not infrequent stops for burgers and fries; Rawlins has been known to consume four milkshakes on one shift. But then another routine stop, for a burnt-out tail light, goes wrong. The driver pulls a gun, shoots Rawlins, and turns his gun on Garcia, who fires first.
Rawlins survives, just as he has managed to survive his fast-food diet, to continue his wise-cracks and merciless needling of his older partner. But the man Garcia shot dies.
An interesting plot twist, it gets a realistic treatment. Was it the officer’s training that causes the police to ask the driver and passengers to get out of the car, which is later discovered to contain a large amount of methamphetamine? Or is, as the driver accuses Garcia, and he denies, because two of the four men in the car are black? Maybe it’s an unanswerable question, but what is clear to everyone but Garcia is that he subsequently is suffering from post-traumatic stress.
His girlfriend kicks him out; his chief puts him on desk duty and orders him to have counseling. And Garcia realizes that the only way to he can solve the mysteries bedeviling him is he asks for help from his low-life, discredited stepbrother.
Smith has created a daring debut work — one might even call it arresting — that combines a good dose of humor with a keen sense of humanity in a world that is not often fair, sensible, or politically correct. His characters, from Danny to the bishop, all have their flaws (OK, some are worse than others), but that makes them all the more intriguing. Their world is drawn in such rich detail, one wonders, how many ride-alongs with the Napa police Smith did to create so realistic a sense that we, too, are in the car where life and death and Burger King all meet?
Oh, yes, there is a vintner; he is the driver of the blue Porsche, but his role is measured. He is just one part of the world we will all recognize as Napa.
“Lies That Bind” ($15.95, Frankie’s Press) is available at BookMine in Napa.