New Jersey has always seemed to be the butt of people’s jokes. Even the state’s motto, “The Garden State”, seems a deliberate attempt by somebody to set it up for a fall given its reputation as an industrial wasteland and dumping ground. However, the seaside board walks and sandy beaches of its coastal towns once made it a haven in summer time for families of all incomes. While beaches were segregated by class, the wealthiest to the poorest could enjoy cooling off in the heat of the summer in its sheltered coves. Even today the boardwalks remain and people converge on the oceanfront in places like Asbury Park to surf and swim.
While the beaches may not have changed all that much, inland things aren’t as nice. With the failures of industry and the loss of jobs the fastest growth business is recreational chemicals. Crystal meth, crack, heroin and ecstasy are where the money is and those looking to make a quick buck have moved in to stake out their territories. In Rob Scot’s new release from Orion/Gollancz, Asbury Park, Detective Sam “Sailor” Doyle returns to the family home in New Jersey to recover from injuries received in the line of duty. He knows he’ll find things have changed for the worst since he was a teenager, but nothing can prepare him for the nightmare he’s about to walk into.
While Sailor was heralded in the news for being the hero who saved the life of the President and prevented a madman from infecting the east coast of the United State with the plague (for details see Scott’s previous release 15 Miles) there’s a darker reality hidden beneath the headlines. Plagued by personal demons, Sailor hadn’t been completely sober in years. By the time of the events described in the previous book he had stooped to the level of stealing prescription drugs from crime scenes to feed his Oxycocete addiction and was cheating on his wife. This summer’s trip back home is being made not only in the hopes he can recover physically, but is an effort to salvage his marriage and his life.
Sailor’s experienced cop eye is disconcerted to see the telltale signs of organized gang activity in his old neighbourhood. Aside from the obvious evidence of poverty and drug trafficking, even more ominous are the telltale signs of gang “tags” marking territory on buildings and at scenes of what appear to be random acts of vandalism. However, his more immediate concerns are his wife’s threat to take the kids and leave him if she gets so much of as a hint that he’s fallen off the wagon and the withdrawal symptoms that are wracking his body. It’s the latter which forces him out of bed in the early hours of the morning and out onto the boardwalk. Exhausted and in pain he seeks refuge in a seaside hotel where he’s taken under the wing of an early-rising former minor league baseball player, Mark “Moses” Stillman.
The invitation to join Stillman for breakfast would have been ideal if they weren’t interrupted by a body falling from the sixth floor balcony onto their table. When the apparent suicide turns out to have at one time been Sailor’s high school history teacher it’s enough to send shivers up his spine. However odd it might be that a former teacher of his just happens to pick his breakfast table to jump into, it can still all be explained away as a coincidence. With the jumper comes the local police and the kind of attention Sailor was hoping to avoid. Spending the month of July getting clean and patching things up with the wife is harder to do when you’re a material witness to what might be a murder inquiry. Suicide becomes possible murder when there’s evidence to suggest that his former teacher might have been dead before he did the swan dive off the balcony.
All hopes of staying off anyone’s radar disappear when Sailor breaks up what he thinks is a potential shooting spree in the making. He tackles a teenage kid about to enter a middle school with a concealed weapon. Unfortunately the kid is possessed with the strength of desperation and Sailor is suffering from the wounds he earned earlier. Things are looking really desperate for him when help arrives in an unexpected form. A local drug dealer jumps into the fray and kills the kid before jumping into his car and taking off. When it turns out the kid’s weapons were not only obsolete but empty, that his bomb is nothing more than flares taped together, and that he’d wrapped a device designed to set himself on fire — well, the apparent murderer becomes an attempted suicide.
A suicide that could be a murder and a murderer who was really a suicide and both in very public places with both just happening to involve Sailor. Too make matters worse ever since he’s returned to the old neighbourhood he’s been having what he can only call auditory hallucinations that seem to be turning into his own personal soundtrack. While it’s possible a classic rock station is fixating on Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”, the fact Sailor hears it coming out of almost every radio and stereo he comes within hearing range of is starting to strain his already taunt nerves. As if that’s not enough, there’s another tune that keeps cropping up. Whether he hears it faintly on the air or somebody is whistling a few bars as they walk by it’s starting to drive him crazy. When it starts heralding visions of events from out of the past and other twists in reality, it only takes hearing the familiar notes to make him panic.
However, when the ghost of the kid he wrestled to the ground in the schoolyard starts stalking him and “tagging” his house Sailor knows something somewhere is not right. As more and more pieces of the puzzle start to assemble, the picture becomes even fuzzier. Somehow present day gang activity ties in to mysterious deaths back when he was teenager and he’s somehow the focal point. On the surface it seems like a confusing mess with little or no way for Sailor to find his way clear. Yet author Scott takes what seems like a frustrating morass of unconnected incidents and characters and allows them to find a way to fit together that makes sense in the world he’s created.
On the surface the setting and events of Asbury Park appears to mirror New Jersey of today, with all the problems drugs and gangs bring to any urban community. However, underneath is something far more sinister and dangerous. Combining elements of psychological horror and fantasy with a stark and gritty crime thriller is no mean trick, yet when it’s done with the aplomb that Scott manages, it makes for a gripping read. Even more tricky is the fact that he has centred the action around a character who is not necessarily sympathetic. Sailor Doyle displays too many of the symptoms of an addict to make him easy to like. However, in spite of his back sliding, lying, and self-pity he never once makes excuses for himself or his behaviour. In some ways the mystery he finds himself in parallels his personal nightmare of addiction. It’s a maze he has to find his way out of before it collapses and buries him and those he loves alive.
Asbury Park is not your typical cop novel or standard horror story and as a result it is better than what you’d normally expect from either genre. Not only does it deliver the chills and thrills of both, but it does so with an intelligence and emotional depth usually lacking in those types of books. From Scott’s honest depiction of his main character’s struggles with his personal demons to the way he gradually cranks up the tension as the book proceeds, it becomes harder and harder to put the book down. If you thought the streets of your hometown were unsafe, it’s nothing compared to what’s happening in Asbury Park, New Jersey. The boardwalk will never be the same again.