Shadowed by ruthless criminals and lured in by his impossibly sexy yet newly vulnerable business partner, P.I. Duck Darley struggles to stay sober and alive as he runs a reckless murder investigation. The victim was his business partner’s boyfriend, a journalist who was about to uncover the horrors of doping experiments performed on East German Olympians during the Cold War. The Olympic setting may be fresh to many of us as readers, but the author Casey Barrett, a Canadian Olympian, can speak with authority and spin a fast-paced tale that easily captivates using a historic backdrop.
A beautiful waterfall in the Catskills provides the prologue’s setting for Against Nature (Kensington Books), in the second book in the Duck Darley series. The dead body of faded journalist Victor Wingate lies smashed in a bloody mess against the rocks below. Hovering police opine this is a suicide, since Victor tried to kill himself once before. Victor’s tall, dark and striking girlfriend Cassandra Kimball—professional dominatrix in a not-so-previous life and soon-to-be prime suspect in Victor’s murder—insists this was no suicide. A crystal glass sits alone on a nearby rock with one sip of bourbon left to drink, “the angels’ share” as Barrett writes. His skillful writing and intriguing set-up draw us in.
With real-life grittiness that shows up often and effectively, Barrett opens the story as antihero protagonist Duck Darley offers cleanup Kleenex to his wealthy girlfriend Juliette at the end of their latest sexual romp. Duck provides sex to the blond divorcee and swim lessons and tutoring to her precocious eight-year-old son Stevie. It’s a good-for-now gig that keeps him a little more sober than he’d otherwise be.
But seconds later an urgent text from Cass—the partner for whom he’d once taken a bullet to protect and has now not heard from for twenty months—prompts him to head immediately for a bus to the Catskills to help her find Victor’s murderer. The plot thickens when a well-built young man with a German accent, shaved head and multiple tattoos—in neo-Nazi numerology that Duck recognizes from his own days in prison years ago—shows up and acts like he knows him, and Cass as well. It is only with some dumb luck that Duck makes the bus.
The neo-Nazi encounter introduces the heart of the story, the reason for the Against Nature title and the connection of Victor to such elements. For his latest article, the faded journalist had been researching doping experiments inflicted on the East German Olympic athletes during the Cold War, experiments whose awful consequences have been physical, emotional, and permanent. It seems Victor’s new book was about to expose embarrassing details. As Duck fights hourly to keep his alcoholic habits at bay he reaches out to the German and neo-Nazi contacts Victor had collected and begins to gather the details.
Then someone is killed, Cass is arrested on charges of double homicide, with credible evidence against her and a beleaguered Duck is left to wonder what the truth might be. The investigation he struggles to lead exposes him firsthand to the evils of white supremacy and the ruthless consequences of extreme performance enhancement, all set in nameless bars and seedy settings along the most shadowy Manhattan streets and seamy sides of Miami.
A born-and-raised New Yorker, Duck subjects himself daily to brutal self-reflection that endears us to an intelligent man whose natural tendency is to overindulge—with alcohol and women—as much as is humanly possible. But his most tenacious instincts are to protect those dear to him and thus we root for him, even at his lowest moments. Detailed descriptions of Duck’s beloved New York City deepen many scenes and compelled me to read on. The city becomes a real character in the story as locales of shadowy Manhattan bars and street corners provide vivid texture and an edgy familiarity that we readily embrace. Against Nature is a well-crafted story with a strong and pleasing narrative style that deftly delivers on plot. A satisfying read, and not just for thriller aficionados.
Against Nature is available for purchase.
About Casey Barrett
Casey Barrett is a Canadian Olympian and the co-founder and co-CEO of Imagine Swimming, New York City’s largest learn-to-swim school. He has won three Emmy awards and one Peabody award for his work on NBC’s broadcasts of the Olympic Games. He was the author of the popular swimming blog, Cap & Goggles, and was a regular contributor to the Village Voice. His work has also appeared in GQ, Rolling Stone, and Swimming World magazine.