Lee Adams’ compelling murder mystery “Nighthawks” begins with a summary of how mangled the life of burned out, one-hit author and newly-minted diner owner Julie Page has become.
The love of her life, Felix, a musician who saved her life, emotionally and physically, has left her for Dr. Marjorie Stewart, her psychiatrist. She doesn’t see much of him but, for complex reasons, continues to see her, professionally. Her agent Richard reminds her, insistently, that she’s behind on the follow-up to her surprising bestseller story of the life of singer Maxine Montego, which in turn contributes to a mighty case of writer’s block. She’s just opened a vintage-era diner, Nighthawks, with the money she got from her first book. The diner is her social anchor but its cast of memorable characters also presents another set of challenges. But all this is nothing compared to her discovery of the dead body of Bethany, a young homeless girl she discovered in front of her diner, just as the place was about to open for business.
Julie’s got her work cut out for her, to say the least. She’s got to appease her agent, manage the personalities of her staff, and deal with the loss of her boyfriend, all of which is contaminated by nightmare visits from Bethany. And it doesn’t help that she’s addicted to Valium that she pops like Pez when she’s stressed, which is always, and which compounds everything else going wrong.
She plods forward, in leaps and starts, her energy level and clear-headedness determined by the amount of sleep she got and whatever combination of pills, caffeine, and alcohol she’s ingested. The detective in charge of the case, Frank, no-nonsense, by-the-book, is not making things easier on her. She’s a suspect, first, because she found the body. Then because it turns out the murdered girl was wearing Julie’s recently discarded coat; then because Julie was associating with known criminal elements. Things turn quickly around when it’s apparent that she was the intended victim, not the young girl. The resolution explodes out of the blue, so well did Adams set up the blue herrings. The conclusion is unexpected, and shows how the best mysteries are the ones that hit you like a punch in the gut.
For most of the story, Julie blocks our attempts to sympathize with her. The Julie Page we get to know in the book is hard to get to know. In her damaged state she doesn’t, can’t, and won’t identify with anyone. She’s erratic, she talks too much and never to the point, and she uses clichés in sentences that never seem to end. She seems irrevocably damaged. Though she’s got a colorful, to say the least, support system, it looks like no one can help her.
It’s not until the end, when Julie’s in rehab and is telling the story from the point of view of an addict in recovery that you realize that Adams has deftly, magnificently captured the idioms, the pacing, the logic, and the sentence structure of a narrator with impaired brain function. With words Adams embeds a barrier to entry into the heart of Julie. Early on her agent Richard had suggested that she write a fictionalized account of her own life, not the non-fiction story of someone else; the result is this story.