NOTHING MORE DANGEROUS by Allen Eskens is a coming-of-age mystery that reads like literary fiction. Boady Sanden is a fifteen-year-old freshman at Ignatius High School in Jessup, Missouri. If you’ve read Eskens other novels, you may recognize Boady’s name from The Life We Bury and The Heavens May Fall, in those books, he is older and a law professor. NOTHING MORE DANGEROUS is a prequel; Eskens began writing it almost two decades ago. Boady is a likeable character – wise beyond his years and a genuinely decent guy. His father died when he was five years old and his widowed mother is still grieving; shy and withdrawn, she finds it difficult to connect emotionally with people. Hoke, an older man who lives next door, befriends Boady – offering him his advice and access to his library. Boady wants nothing more than to leave Jessup and has a plan and a can of money stashed away for his escape.
Boady is new to Ignatius and shortly after the first day of school, he finds trouble in the form of Jarvis, Bob and Brad. Bob and Brad (referred to as Jarvis’ boobs) take direction from Jarvis, who has a meaner streak. When Jarvis tells Bob to dump pudding on Diana, a black girl sitting near Boady, he overhears their plan and he trips him, sending him sprawling onto the floor. Boady becomes a target for the trio. Jarvis tells Boady that they won’t beat him up if he does them a favor – he is to keep his eyes and ears open to new neighbors moving into his neighborhood – the Elgins, a black family whose father Charles has been hired to manage Ryke Manufacturing, where most of the men in Jessup work. As the novel progresses, Jarvis ups the ante, putting pressure on Boady to spray paint a racial epithet on the Elgin’s house.
Boady’s friendship with Thomas Elgin, Charles’ teenage son, gets off to a rocky start; Boady must confront his own prejudice. Though he’s never considered himself prejudiced, he’s grown up steeped in it, and has a hard time recognizing the more subtle ways prejudice can keep people down. Over the course of the summer, Thomas and Boady become good friends.
Eskens is one of those rare authors who not only builds strong characters, but a suspenseful plot and a strong ending. Let’s get to the mystery: Ms. Lida Poe, a black woman who works at the factory goes missing – about the same time as $100,000. Many people believe that Lida Poe embezzled the money and left town. Eskens ratchets up the suspense with a white supremacist group known as The Corps. The tension is palpable when these players are on the scene – they will stop at nothing – threats, intimidation, violence — all part of the ethos of the Corps.
Young Broady Sanden is one of my favorite Eskens’ characters, and NOTHING MORE DANGEROUS is one of my favorite reads of 2019.
Listen to my interview with Allen Eskens on February 27 at 7:00 pm on Superior Reads, 90.7 WTIP Grand Marais. This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.