Neal Griffin’s debut novel, “The Benefit of the Doubt” is a page-turner of a thriller by an author with clear expertise in both police procedure and police culture, unflinching in its presentation of violence, racism, and vice. Set in small-town Wisconsin, the book explores the reality of small-town policing and the way crime and corruption go unchecked; think Fargo meets Copland. The book does not turn around a twist or reveal but relies on solid pacing and storytelling to hold the reader.
The story follows two men on intersecting paths. Ben Sawyer is a former big-city cop, used to dealing with gangs and violence but banished to rustic Wisconsin after his temper gets the better of him and he nearly kills a suspect. Harlan Lee is a felon on parole with a laundry list of scores to settle. As their lives gradually entangle (unbeknownst to either man), other characters are pulled in: The precinct’s dirtiest cop and corrupt new chief, a young lady cop fresh out of black-ops in Iraq, and Ben’s own wife and stroke-disabled father.
Griffin’s prose is easy and direct, in the tradition of great thrillers, and for the most part avoids slipping into that “hard-boiled” voice that so often seems like a parody of itself. Where the voice falters is in the number of viewpoint characters; “The Benefit of the Doubt” is told from five separate points of view, all of which are relatively similar. Sure, Doyle McKenzie, the dope-slinging dirty cop is more bigoted and embittered, and Tia Suarez, the ex-Marine is more tactical, but these are subtle differences. For the most part, these viewpoint characters think and reason alike.
Fans of a good procedural will not be disappointed; Griffin’s experience and expertise shines through, from paperwork to prison visitation, and the evolution of police record keeping is central to the story. He has likely seen his share of violence as well, and when violence erupts the narrative does not turn away. If anything, it zooms in and slows it down, offering detailed descriptions of the paths of bullets through flesh, the breaking of bones and teeth, the spatter of brain matter on a wall. The book’s language does not exploit or glamorize the bloodshed, but presents it in a powerful way that is often difficult to read. Racism and homophobia are treated similarly, not filtered or cleaned up but presented from the perspective of the viewpoint characters, gritty and real.
In fact, where the book most trips up may be in its treatment of minority characters. In its effort to present that gritty reality, “The Benefit of the Doubt” is unforgiving toward sex workers, especially a transgender sex worker who turns up halfway through the narrative. Not only do multiple characters refer to the character as “he-she” and “it,” but multiple police remark that murdering such a person would be justified because of gay panic. Ethnic minorities are generally presented as stereotypes, black drug dealers and Latino gangbangers, and although the book presents a fully realized Latina cop in Tia Suarez, she enters the story disguised as a street-walking prostitute, repeatedly harassed by fellow cops for her gender and ethnicity, and the narrative lingers on a description of her legs.
Again, Griffin is an insider to police work, and is certainly trying to show the unfortunate reality of that culture. Much of the narrative comes filtered through viewpoint characters who range from dirty to outright despicable; by the end of this story almost no one comes out clean. However it would be nice if even one character spoke in defense of the marginalized, or at least refrained from such language and treated prostitutes as humans. We get one scene with a turbaned gas station attendant who scolds McKenzie for his comically overt racism, but that’s about all.
That trans prostitute comes across as particularly problematic because there is no reason given, within the narrative, as to why a killer who calculates almost every move chooses to target a trans person. The scene thus feels not just surprising but mean-spirited, and readers who are sensitive to such things may want to steer clear.
All that said, it’s worth emphasizing that the world Griffin presents is intended to be disturbing. Griffin’s police are almost universally corrupt and bigoted; his Wisconsin woods are rife with prostitutes and marijuana grows; even his hero carries the moral burden of nearly murdering an unarmed man. Plot developments hinge on the “good guys” using torture and illegal surveillance to find the information they need. Beneath the surface layer of grime is just more grime; it’s unrelenting corruption all the way down.
“The Benefit of the Doubt” is hard to put down, and readers may find themselves wishing for more. Whether Ben Sawyer will be back remains to be seen, but Griffin is a talented author with a great mind for police work, and the book is well worth a read.