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‘The Hunger of Crows’ is a gripping, character-driven political thriller from Alaska

“Hunger of the Crows”

By Richard Chiappone; Crooked Lane Books; 2021; 304 pages; $27.99

Homer, Alaska doesn’t come to mind as an obvious setting for a political thriller, especially one where the outcome could determine a US presidential race. That’s why Homer makes perfect sense. When someone has something to hide and someone to hide from, the legendary End of the Road is an attractive destination.

This is how Carla Merino finds herself in Richard Chiappone’s suspenseful yet lighthearted novel “The Hunger of Crows.” Chiappone, who clearly lives and loves Homer, makes her town and the surrounding Kachemak Bay area the backdrop for Carla’s getaway after she comes into possession of an incriminating photograph of a candidate independent in the presidential election which jumped in the polls.

The story begins in Phoenix, Arizona, where Carla is a waitress at a bar serving cops. Divorced and approaching forty, she fills the voids in her life by returning home with wandering men. When she meets Cosmo D’Angelo at the bar, she assumes he is a law enforcement officer and follows him to his place. Before leaving, she does what she does with all the men she sleeps with, she throws something in memory. In this case, a bedside drawer photograph of D’Angelo of himself some 20 years younger, alongside another white American and two men who appear to be Latin American, one of them a military officer, the other maybe a businessman.

The second white man in the photo is Gordon McKint, owner of Sidewinder Security, a secret international company that handles clandestine foreign relations duties and engages in US border security. McKint is running for president on a nativist platform and has momentum. Carla sends a snapshot of the photo to a New York Times reporter friend, who tells her she shows McKint with a Colombian colonel who stole millions of American aid money. McKint, who is suspected of engaging in numerous underhand activities, had told Congress that he had never met the colonel. Publication of the photo would prove him guilty of lying under oath, scuttling his presidential hopes and business empire, and possibly putting him behind bars. D’Angelo, whom Carla went home with, is McKint’s fixer. It eliminates problems for the boss. And he’s going to want that photo back.

With only a few personal effects and the stolen photograph, a photo the New York Times would like to publish, Carla gets into her van and heads north. Which brings him to Homer, where most of the story takes place.

Carla finds refuge in the booze-fueled fishing town, serving as a waitress at the Orca Grill, a popular watering hole for locals and tourists alike. She meets George Volker, her landlord, grows closer to fellow waitress Shire Kaminsky, a single mother of twins, and gets noticed by Scott Crockett, a painfully honest local general contractor in the midst of an ugly divorce and therefore newly available. And she’s still looking over her shoulder for D’Angelo, who, this being a political thriller, has of course figured out where she is and is on her way. Like some other people at McKint.

I understood? I don’t want to reveal too many details here, because Chiappone throws so many unexpected twists into this plot that any attempt to wrap them up would not only not do the book justice, but rob readers of the sheer joy that comes from reading it.

I said at the start that “The Hunger of Crows” is a political thriller, but the emphasis is not on the politics, while the thrills are judiciously distributed as needed to get things done without overstepping the plot. These are the characters that drive the story. Chiappone taps into their backgrounds, shaping them into complex individuals. Most are in the early stages of their 40s, grappling with the choices that brought them to where they are. Carla both follows in her mother’s footsteps and flees her. Scott, who appears as the main supporting character, was born in Homer and, like so many Alaskans, has a college degree but prefers to work with his hands. D’Angelo, who could easily have been cast as a soulless killer, is instead a middle-aged man who has just lost his adult daughter to cancer. He too is struggling with his life choices. In Chiappone’s hands, past experiences determine the present motivations of all who occupy his leading roles. They make sense as people. Just like their decisions.

Homer and Kachemak Bay are also characters of one meaning in that Chiappone employs them as living forces that provide more than just backdrops. He knows these places well and is wonderfully evocative of the contrast between natural beauty and human intrusion in passages like this, when Carla pauses to admire her surroundings:

“With the natural ocean smell of brine and fish, the harbor breeze stinks of diesel and dumpsters… Two mature bald eagles sit atop a large construction crane, peering out the beach for an easy meal.”

Anyone who has visited the Homer Spit will instantly find their bearings with this description. And for those who’ve driven…well…anywhere in Alaska, Chiappone’s concise summary of one of the state’s most popular exterior siding options will ring true:

“They pass another mummified house made of Tyvek fabric.”

“Mummified”. One of the hallmarks of Chiappone’s writing, whether it’s literary nonfiction, short stories, or political thrillers, is his sense of humor. There are many very funny lines so easily slipped into this account that inattentive readers are likely to miss many of them, though a brief paragraph on the plight of fly fishermen, which I will not divulge, is impossible to ignore, and will have both veteran anglers and those who have never cast a rod laughing.

“The Hunger of Crows” is literary enough that those who typically shy away from genre fiction will want to give it a read, but accessible enough that serious thriller readers will also enjoy it immensely. This is not an easy gap to fill. This one belongs on everyone’s late summer reading list.

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