A Review of Bobby Mathews, Magic City Blues
By Wiley Reiver
Alabama author Bobby Mathews has followed up his well-regarded 2022 release Living the Gimmick with the newly released Magic City Blues, a novel that, for all his first book’s strengths, reveals how dramatically Mathews is growing as a crime author. Blues depends on Mathews’ insider understanding of the realities of life in his state’s largest city to create a propulsive, exciting work that affords the reader plenty of fun in working through more than one mystery. It also depicts a refreshingly original, surprisingly engaging relationship between a thuggish criminal and the police detective he finds himself drawn to. There are three main reasons why this book succeeds on more than one level: the skillfulness of Mathews’ plotting, the critical role of the city of Birmingham in the narrative, and the exceptional characterization of the novel’s protagonist.
The first strength of this novel I’ll note is the plotting. The story centers on the self-described “professional thug” Kincaid (that’s all he’s called), a combat veteran who works as a fixer on behalf of Carlton Doyle, a crime boss who controls much of the Birmingham, Alabama underworld. The novel opens with Kincaid getting a new assignment: Doyle tells Kincaid to protect his daughter Abby, a young woman who enjoys a privileged life of tennis lessons and brunches at the tonier spots in the Blue Dot. (A nickname for Birmingham as it reliably votes Democratic in an otherwise MAGA-red state.) When Abby’s fiancé is murdered, Kincaid encounters Laura D’Agostino, a steel-willed city detective assigned to investigate the killing. Even though D’Agostino is soon pulled off the case, she defies her superiors by continuing to work with Kincaid to solve the murder and find out who’s after Abby and why.
The result is a masterfully rendered plot with numerous turns and complications that ratchet up the suspense in thoroughly pleasing ways. Along the way, subplots accumulate but never clutter up the narrative in a confusing or distracting way: Why does Abby seem to have a drinking problem and engage in moments of verbal sexual acting out? Who’s working with whom as well as, possibly, against whom to secure a major property deal in a traditionally Black part of the city? And what does that deal, if anything, have to do with the murder and Abby’s need of protection? Is D’Agostino about to cost herself a career she loves by continuing to work the case? Will Kincaid and D’Agostino yield to their quickly growing attraction to one another? Mathews keeps all these plates spinning fast and true, bringing us eventually to a resolution that is convincing, nicely paced, and satisfying.
The next strength of Blues I want to highlight is Mathews’ use of the city of Birmingham. It’s much more than merely the physical location of the action. It would be easy enough, and accurate enough, to compare what Mathews does with Birmingham to what Raymond Chandler did with Los Angeles and Chester Himes did with Harlem (factoring in, of course, that he’s written only one Kincaid novel at this point). But the author Mathews’ use of Birmingham puts me most in mind of is Karen Slaughter in her excellent Will Trent crime series. While never devolving into distracting polemic, Slaughter’s representation of Atlanta in these novels presents a city burdened by divisions of race, class, and gender. The result is a grittily realistic environment in which characters must make choices and overcome obstacles.
Only someone who’s connected with Birmingham like Mathews could achieve similar effects. The metro Birmingham area is split into multiple sections by mountain spurs and highway arrangements; the result is a topographical metaphor for the divisions and stratifications of its citizens. Birmingham is 70% Black, for example, but there are sections of it in which well-heeled whites can go for days without seeing a person of color who isn’t preparing their food or mopping a floor. So it’s to Mathews’ credit that Kincaid describes a downtown hotel as “old Birmingham, a throwback to the lie of white genteel benevolence” (37). The complications of race are further emphasized when he reminds us that a “Black hospital” in the city’s northern neighborhood refused to treat white Freedom Riders during the Civil Rights era (80). A bar in a rapidly gentrifying section is described as “overpriced and bougie, and as such, it’s one of the more popular places” for white hipsters who spread like mold through previously disregarded sections of Birmingham. All in all, the Birmingham Mathews depicts is fertile soil from which the depredation and deceit of the novel’s core events emerges.
The final outstanding element of this novel is Mathews’ depiction of his protagonist. At first glance, Kincaid would seem to be utterly at home in the hardboiled crime novels of, say, Jim Thompson or James Crumley. Not that his current occupation is anything he deliberately sought out or planned. Instead, as he explains at one point, after leaving the military and returning to Birmingham, “[w]ord got around that I was a guy who could handle trouble, and I got hired to do just that. And then again, and again. It became what I did” (149). And what he does seemingly leaves him with little to rely on or care about. At another point in the novel, Kincaid declares “I don’t believe in magic. I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in much, other than money in my pocket and a gun in my hand” (52). And he uses that gun easily. He explains himself thusly to a recalcitrant hood: “You think I’m some kind of good guy here. I’m not. I will kill you and sleep like a baby tonight. I’ve done it before” (76). Given such statements and what we witness in much of the novel, you’d understandably think that Kincaid is only a man of violence moving through the world unencumbered by ideals or even a sense of purpose beyond getting the next job done for his boss.
But from the beginning of the novel there are signs that there’s more to Kincaid than automaton-like service to a crime boss. Mathews skillfully complicates our picture of him in multiple ways. To be sure, Kincaid is a killer. And yet I find it utterly compelling and authentic when Mathews begins to indicate that Kincaid carries around inside himself values, vulnerabilities, and longings we don’t typically find in hardboiled fiction. For one thing, he’s willing to sacrifice himself to save others. Consider Kincaid’s reaction when Doyle admonishes Kincaid to protect his daughter: “’If anything happens to her, I’ll already be dead,’ I told him, my words flat and hard. ‘You know how I work’” (13). Can you imagine Lew Archer or Philip Marlowe making such an overt promise to die protecting another? To me, it’s at least a thoroughly debatable question that they would. (But Dave Robicheaux just might. I can see that. Or even Clete Purcell, come to think of it. Still and all, it’s a rare quality in crime fiction characters, especially in those who work on the other side of the law.)
However, the characterization that distinguishes this novel is most fully present in the trajectory of the relationship between Kincaid and D’Agostino. Mathews can be forgiven for relying on sex scenes that in their intensity and explosive mutual climaxes are, to be blunt, very familiar to readers of male-oriented crime fiction (too familiar?). The reason why is that the emotional dynamics between the criminal and the detective are vibrantly original and add dimensions to Kincaid I don’t recall finding in another crime novel protagonist. Put simply, Mathews foregoes standing pat with the standard stony-hearted eroticism so often found in the genre. Instead, he shows us a psychically scarred man, one capable of lethal rage, not only still capable of falling in love, but also one who, albeit hesitantly, seeks it out. And it’s love that includes a vital element of true intimacy, vulnerability:
At the same time, I hated myself for having to rely on her. I am, at my core, a lonely man. I don’t have friends, exactly. I have acquaintances. I have people I do business with. But not friends. I don’t do entanglements. And now I had begun an entanglement with Laura D’Agostino, and even though it seemed destined to be short-lived, I was still relying on her.(Magic City Blues, 199)
In sum, Mathews has presented Kincaid in an impressively true to life manner. His all-too-human heart harbors murderous impulses and sweet tenderness, declarations of violence and confessions of loneliness; it’s a thudding, careening thing in perpetual conflict with itself, and that above all is why Kincaid is a character I hope we encounter again and again.
Wiley Reiver is from the South Carolina Lowcountry but currently lives in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. He works in university administration. He’s also been a picture framer, college English teacher, ESL instructor in Iraq, racetrack bathroom cleaner, and very bad maker of donuts. He holds an MFA from the University of Southern Maine. His fiction and nonfiction work has appeared under other names in the New York Times, Fried Chicken and Coffee, the Civil War Monitor, and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. He’s at work on a New Orleans crime novel. Twitter: @SFWriter3.