Ian K. Smith has much to say, and much worth saying, in his new thriller, “The Unspoken: An Ashe Cayne Novel” (Thomas & Mercer).
Smith, a medical doctor with a number of nonfiction best-sellers to his credit, again turns to fiction in his third novel with a series debut. For lovers of the genre, that’s a great thing. It’s a chance to follow from the beginning a fictional detective who no doubt we’ll be seeing more of. Think Harry Bosch circa 1992, 23 books ago.
That Smith counts the efforts of Michael Connelly and other giants as prescriptive of the form is clear. Pacing, plotting and character development keep the pages turning even as it’s revealed that former Chicago detective Ashe Cayne is his own man.
Flawed with a wicked and smart sense of humor, Cayne has a developed backstory — and one filled with the commensurate rocky relationships and independence imperative of any fictional sleuth. As a teen, he was good enough to turn tennis pro — a dream more of his psychiatrist father’s than his own: the detective is named after Arthur Ashe — but eschewed the court to follow his own North Star.
Now, guided by an unshakeable sense of morality — the reason he’s no longer on the force is that he refused to go along with a departmental coverup involving the death of a Black man — Cayne’s early life choices, complicated relationships and career-ending convictions pointed him in one solitary direction: private detective.
Others note this, too. A sometimes girlfriend observes that “you were really cut out for this. … Trying to make right out of wrong.”
Yet Cayne has reached an age in that he has no illusions of grandeur: “I’m not delusional enough to think I can change the world. But I do think there’s a universal karma that dictates good will ultimately prevail over evil.”
In “The Unspoken” that evil is layered by greed, wealth, and racial and class inequalities. There’s also a subplot involving sex offenses against juveniles that advances our perception of Cayne’s righteous revenge, but feels so wedged into this novel that we’ll say no more of it.
When the daughter of society matron Violet Gerrigan goes missing, Ashe is put on the case for his ability to work outside of official channels. Soon, those channels connect with organized crime, white-collar crime and just about any other type of crime you’re likely to find on Chicago’s streets. And when a Black man is killed as collateral damage, Ashe’s sense of injustice is piqued — even to the point that he refuses to back off when Gerrigan inexplicably offers him a quarter of a million dollars to stop his pursuit of the truth.
Through textural story building, Smith brings those pieces together into a satisfying conclusion. Not always satisfying is how we get there. In this novel, Smith relies a bit too much on deus ex machina — the inside friends on the force, his hired muscle — to advance Cayne’s detecting and get him out of scrapes. But because the author does show that he has the ability to plot his imperfect hero out of impossible situations, hopefully we’ll see more of that as the series progresses.
Until then, we’ll enjoy this solid start to a new fictional universe where right is right, wrong is wrong and the good guys get to win — at least sometimes.