“A page-turner”, “unputdownable” and a blurb from Lee Child (“solid gold A-list must-read”) are all somewhat clichés of crime fiction, but in the case of Three Weeks to Say Goodbye by C. J. Cox (Corvus), more than justified. From the first paragraph of the novel, when Denver travel-development specialist and narrator Jack McGuane gets a horrible phone message at work from the agency from which he and his wife Melissa adopted their 9-month-old baby Angelina, I felt compelled to find out what was going on. It isn’t pleasant: owing to an administrative confusion, the baby’s natural father never actually signed the relevant legal documents, and now wants the baby back.
The initial chapters lurch from Jack’s initial belief that this can be easily sorted out, to his awful realisation that not only is he in a mess with no legal leg to stand on, but he can’t afford a lawyer and can’t rely on the support of colleagues or contacts because the baby’s natural grandfather is an ambitious federal judge with a large network of allies and people who owe him favours within the local public and political services. The book succeeds very well in these opening chapters because it focuses on the emotions of Jack and Melissa, truly devoted parents to Angelina, and the havoc caused by the actions of the creepy Garrett Moreland and his powerful father John.
Jack and Melissa try to counter the Morelands’ claim over their baby but fail. Judge Moreland gives the couple three weeks to say goodbye to Angelina and to organise her life so she is ready for the transfer, a Solomon-like dilemma. Jack and Melissa vow to spend this time in fighting the Morelands with everything they have – which isn’t much. The sum total of their weaponry consists of two of Jack’s old schoolfriends: Cody, now a police detective; and Brian, a well-connected player in the Denver local political scene. Brian offers to dig into Judge Moreland’s background to try to find some way to stop him. Cody, however, turns out to be more of a liability than an asset, as Jack discovers when he sees Cody torn to pieces in the judge’s courtroom, for tampering with evidence. Cody is then suspended from the force so is effectively ruined as a useful ally.
Although the pace of the novel is maintained all the way through, and the portrayal of Jack (mainly) and Melissa (less detailed) is empathetic and involving, I felt that the detection aspects were not as strong as they might have been. Brian, and subsequently Cody, spend much time absent, undertaking unknown activities, occasionally phoning Jack with cryptic updates. Most of what the reader experiences is Jack flailing around as disaster piles on disaster, particularly a trip to Berlin which Jack is forced by his boss to undertake, during the somewhat artificial "three weeks" framework. There is a good interlude when the little band of friends travel with Angelina to Montana to see Cody’s dangerous uncle Jed and stop in on Jack’s parents; and a truly surreal, eventually horror-comic episode when Jed turns up in Denver.
Ultimately, however, the climax of the novel depends more on violence than it does cleverness or dissection of motives and methods, which for me was a slight disappointment. Only slight, though – the plot is a good one and Jack is certainly a very refreshing change from most protagonists. He’s got all the usual human shortcomings; he's the opposite of macho; his devotion to his wife and daughter is touching; and the way he feels and acts in the workplace is very convincing. I very much enjoyed this novel and, though I might not go back and read this author’s previous series, I am extremely well-disposed to any future politico-legal thrillers he might care to write.
I thank Karen of Euro Crime, and the publisher (Corvus), for my copy of this novel.