Tuesday, January 20, 2009

2. Box 100 by Frank Leonard

Box 100 pictureThis was an obscure but intriguing little title I found in a pile of books in one of the used book stores I visited last year in Winnipeg. I can't remember the name right now, but according to the groom, the owner ran the bookstore for decades and at some point he won the lottery. He just kept the store going without any real concern for profit. It's a bit of a mess, but a glorious mess with all kinds of fun media to search through, like comics, videotapes, videogames and other random, dusty things in a big sprawling warehouse structure.

The cover of Box 100 suggests that it is a detective thriller ("One rookie gumshoe against a million dollar ghetto racket!"), which it sort of is, but it's also more of an exploration into the reality of the welfare system in early '70s New York. I could find absolutely no information on this book or the author on the web, other than that it was an Edgar nominee for Best First Novel. I suspect that the author may have actually worked for the welfare department. He knows the details of the structure (which are pretty complex) and also seems to have a burning desire to expose how horrible it was.

The gist of the story is a slacker guy who gets a job working for a special department of investigations for the city, a department that is ultimately pretty weak but kept alive because it makes for good press. Citizens can send their complaints or accusations to Box 100. The narrator's first letter is an accusation of a neighbour who is pretending she lost her welfare cheque and then cashing it twice. This starts the hero on a revealing investigation of all the petty scams and the poor, wretched people who try to survive by pulling them off. Though their "crimes" are pretty apparent and some are even persecuted, it's clear that the author is more concerned with demonstrating the crimes of the system and he does a pretty good job of this.

At some point, though, as the reader, you start to ask yourself, "where's the big scam?" It does come at the last minute and it's preposterous, though it is connected to the earlier crimes he investigated. The lack of strong purpose in the book makes it ultimately a bit disjointed. However, I probably wouldn't have read an exploration of the victims of the welfare system in the '70s and I suspect this book, wrapped in the trappings of a thriller, gave me a pretty good look at it. So I don't regret reading it and am kind of psyched to have found something so obscure even the internet doesn't yet know about it.

5 comments:

Lantzvillager said...

That is the strangest cover! It looks like a NEL British cover from the 70's. A guy standing in an elevator shaft with another guy pointing a gun up at him? Odd.

Crumbolst said...

That IS a weird cover. I think the guy is looking at me!

Olman Feelyus said...

This scene actually takes place in the book. But yes it is a bit odd. I'm guessing they thought they could capture an action audience with a photographic cover. But it's kind of stagnant and too dark. The scene itself, though not really indicative of the tone and content of the rest of the book is actually fairly well-written, kind of exciting and well laid out so you can understand what is going on.

Lantzvillager said...

I like the new look of the blog. Very 2010 futuristic. Oh, wait...

Buzby said...

I enjoy books that are so detailed you really get the feeling that the author has done his research or at least knows his stuff. Too many books these days are written by people pretending to now something about the details of their subject.