The Washington Post
The Singer's Gunby Emily St. John Mandel
Everyone Anton Walker grew up with is corrupt. His parents dealt in stolen goods, and he was a successful purveyor of forged documents until he abandoned it all in his early twenties, determined to live a normal life, complete with career, apartment, and a fiancée who knows nothing of his criminal beginnings. He’s on the verge of finally/i>
Everyone Anton Walker grew up with is corrupt. His parents dealt in stolen goods, and he was a successful purveyor of forged documents until he abandoned it all in his early twenties, determined to live a normal life, complete with career, apartment, and a fiancée who knows nothing of his criminal beginnings. He’s on the verge of finally getting married when Aria—his cousin and former partner in crime—blackmails him into helping her with one last job.
Anton considers the task a small price for future freedom. But as he sets off for an Italian honeymoon, it soon becomes clear that the ghosts of his past can't be left behind so easily, and that the task Aria requires will cost him more than he could ever imagine.
The Washington Post
“Brilliant.” —The Boston Globe
“Something far rarer than the classic noir opening suggestions. . . . Eminently satisfying.” —The Washington Post
“Big in concept, flawless in tone, The Singer’s Gun is a tender and astounding tour de force.” —Mystery Scene
“Mandel’s talent is clearly visible from the get-go.” —Los Angeles Times
“Recklessly entertaining. . . . A modern morality tale.” —The New York Journal of Books
“A nail-biting thriller overflowing with high-stakes issues such as blackmail, theft, fraud and human trafficking.” —BookPage
“Intriguing and suspenseful.” —Library Journal
“Mandel’s second novel is an extraordinarily written meditation on identity, chance and choice. . . . Nothing short of breathtaking.” —The Howard County Times
Read an Excerpt
In an office on the bright sharp edge of New York, glass tower, Alexandra Broden was listening to a telephone conversation. The recording lasted no longer than ten seconds, but she listened to it five or six times before she took off her headphones. It was five thirty in the afternoon, and she had been working since seven a.m. She closed her eyes for a moment, pressed her fingertips to her forehead, and realized that she could still hear the conversation in her head.
The recording began with a click: the sound of a woman picking up her telephone, which had been tapped the day before the call came in. A man’s voice: It’s done. There is a sound on the tape here—the woman’s sharp intake of breath—but all she says in reply is Thank you. We’ll speak again soon. He disconnects and she hangs up three seconds later.
The woman’s name was Aria Waker, and the call had taken place fifteen days earlier. The incoming call came from an Italian cell phone but proved otherwise untraceable. Police were at Aria’s apartment forty minutes after the call went through, but she was already gone and she never came back again.
Broden walked down the hall for a coffee, talked about the baseball season with a colleague for a few minutes, returned to her office and listened to the recording one last time before she made the call.
“Is that it?” she asked when the detective answered.
“That’s it, Al.”
“Please don’t call me that. And you think they’re talking about Anton Waker?”
“If you’d seen what his parents were like the morning after that call came through, you wouldn’t ask me that question,” the detective said.
“How’s the investigation going?”
“Horribly. No one knows anything. No one even knows the dead girl’s name.” The detective sighed. “At least it’s not as bad as the last shipping container we dealt with,” he said.
“I suppose I should be grateful that only one girl died this time. Listen, I’m going to talk to the parents.”
“I tried that two weeks ago. They’re useless,” said the detective, “but be my guest.”
On the drive over the Williamsburg Bridge, Broden kept the radio off. She called her six-year-old daughter from the car. Tova was home from school, baking cookies with her nanny, and she wanted to know what time her mother would be home.
“Before bedtime,” Broden said, hoping this was true.
On the far side of the river she drove down into Brooklyn, graffiti-tagged warehouses rising up around her as the off-ramp lowered her into the streets, and she circled for a while before she found the store: an old brick warehouse on a corner near the river, almost under the bridge, with Waker Architectural Salvage in rusted-out letters above the doors. She parked at the side of the building and went around to the front, where a woman was sitting on the edge of the loading dock. The woman was looking out at the river, at Manhattan on the other side. She turned her head slowly when Broden said her name.
“Yes,” the woman said.
“Mrs. Waker, I’m Alexandra Broden. I work with the State Department, Diplomatic Security Service division.” Broden walked up the steel steps to the loading dock. She flashed her badge at the woman, but the woman didn’t look at it. Her gaze had drifted back to the river, grey beyond the weedy vacant lot across the street. There were dark circles under her eyes and her face was colourless. “I’m sorry to bother you,” Broden said, “but I need to speak with your son.”
“He used to sit here with me,” Miriam said.
“Is he home?”
She said, “In a far-off country.”
Broden stood looking at her for a moment. “Is your husband here, Mrs. Waker?”
“Yes,” she said.
Broden entered the warehouse.
“This one was saved from the sea near Gibraltar.” Samuel Waker had been interrupted in the middle of repainting a figurehead. He had stared flatly at Broden when she came in, but seemed unable to resist giving her a tour of his collection. The Gibraltar figurehead depicted a strong-faced woman rising out of foam, her arms disappearing into the folds of her dress. Her gown ended squarely in an odd cut-out shape where she’d been attached to a ship. Another figurehead had been recovered from the waters off France, her entire left side splintered by the coastline. A third had been pulled from the rocks off the Cape of Good Hope, and this was the one Samuel Waker was restoring. The Cape of Good Hope figurehead had hair the colour of fire, and her eyes were a terrible and final blue. In her arms she cradled an enormous fish. A block away from the nearest river, it opened its gasping mouth to the sky.
“Is this figurehead fairly new?” Broden was looking at the iridescent scales of the fish. “It looks perfect.”
“Restored,” Samuel Waker said. “Had it before, bought it back from someone.” He picked up a palette, and as he spoke he resumed retouching the figurehead’s hair. His voice was reverent. “Can’t believe my luck, getting it back again. I think I might keep it myself this time.”
“Mr. Waker, I was hoping to speak with your son.”
“Don’t know where he is, exactly. Travelling, far as I know.” Samuel Waker’s voice was steady, but she saw that the hand that painted the figurehead’s hair was trembling.
“Travelling where, Mr. Waker?”
“Europe, last I heard. He hasn’t been in contact.”
“What about your niece? You spoken with her recently?”
“Not recently. No.”
“Mr. Waker,” Broden said, “a shipping container came into the dock at Red Hook last week. It held fifteen girls who were being smuggled into the country from Eastern Europe, and one of them died in transit. I think your son and your niece may have been involved in the shipping operation.”
“I wouldn’t know anything about that.”
“Mr. Waker, is your son dead?”
Anton’s father was silent for a moment. “I’m offended by the question,” he finally said. “Here I just told you that he’s travelling, and now you’re calling me a liar.”
“I’d like you to leave.” He didn’t look at her. He was filling in a worn-away section of the figurehead’s hair with tiny, meticulous brush strokes. “I don’t think I have anything to say to you.”
Broden stepped out into the end-of-day light. The sun was setting over the island of Manhattan and Miriam Waker was a shadow on the edge of the loading dock, slumped over her coffee cup. It was November and the air was cool but no steam rose from her coffee; the coffee hadn’t been hot in a long time and she hadn’t sipped at it for longer. Broden sat down beside her, but Miriam Waker didn’t look up.
“Mrs. Waker,” Broden said, “I know you were questioned about your niece by a detective two weeks ago. Has she been in contact since then?”
“What about your son? Have you spoken with Anton recently?”
“Mrs. Waker, I’m afraid that something may have happened to him.”
“I don’t know where Anton is.” Her eyes had dropped to her coffee cup, and she was almost whispering. “I don’t know where he is anymore.”
“Well, where was he last?”
“The island of Ischia,” Anton’s mother said.
Meet the Author
Emily St. John Mandel was born in British Columbia, Canada. Her most recent novel, Station Eleven, was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award and a New York Times bestseller. Her previous novels were Last Night in Montreal, The Singer’s Gun, and The Lola Quartet. She is a staff writer for The Millions, and her work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including The Best American Mystery Stories 2013and Venice Noir. She lives in New York City with her husband.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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In Manhattan Anton Waker knows he has come a long way from his days as a forger of documents although to do so he must distance himself from his family who deal in illegal activities. He is a water systems consultant in demand, has a pretty wife and an office romance on the side. However, his past that he prefers to pretend never happened resurfaces when a routine background check proves his Harvard diploma hanging on his office wall is forged. Adding to his trepidation that life as he knows it and enjoys is over is his cousin, Aria Waker, who sells forged passports and social security cards to illegals. She demands Anton use his excellent forgery skill in what should prove a quite lucrative venture. However, a fourth woman enters his life and frightens him more than his relatives. State Department Agent Alexandra Broden is investigating a forgery ring in which she is almost ready to make arrests starting with the extended Waker brood but has not figured out Anton's role nor that of his secretary Elena with her Arctic secrets. This is an interesting crime caper that takes the audience to Brooklyn, Arctic Canada and Italy as an obsessed Fed goes after a family criminal ring. Overall the this is an entertaining cross Atlantic thriller.line is fast-paced and contains an intriguing cast. However, too many flashbacks that explain what makes the key players (especially Anton, Broden and Elena) tick detracts from the pacing as it feels disruptive. Still this is an entertaining cross Atlantic thriller. Harriet Klausner
Anton Waker is on an island in Italy. A year ago, he would never have thought this would be his life. Back then he worked in an office and was about to be married. He was the picture of respectability. But that picture was marred. Anton was having an affair with his secretary, Elena. His job had disappeared from under him; one day he got to work and his staff was gone and he had been transferred to an office in the basement and given no work. In fact, Anton's whole life had been a charade. He had been raised by parents who made their living by selling stolen goods. His cousin Aria had lured him into an illegal business of selling counterfeit social security cards and passports. Anton tried to leave that life behind. But Aria has forced him to do one last job; a job that has left him stranded on this island, and that has forced him to leave his entire life behind. His wife is gone; his job is gone, his life as he's known it is gone. Can Anton build another life; one that is built on honesty and that gives him the home and peace he has been searching for his entire life? Emily St. John Mandel is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. She has a knack of creating characters who live on the margin, who are searching for connection and meaning, and for making the reader care about them. The writing is sparse and the reader sometimes feels adrift in a fog between them and the story. But then a flash of light occurs and the connection is made, leaving the reader feeling more involved in the character's lives than they would have suspected. The reader finishes the last page satisfied and content, and already anxious for Mandel's next effort. This book is highly recommended for all readers.
The Singer's Gun is one of those rare hybrids: a page-turner that happens to be written in glorious prose. Whether you read Dashiell Hammett or Lawrence Durrell (I read both), you're going to be very happy you discovered this. Even though the book is structured as a thriller - somewhere between classic noir and the exotic travel/murder tale - Mandel is first and foremost a poetic stylist. I managed to get an advance copy through a friend; she's in the publishing industry, and we were both knocked flat by Mandel's first novel, Last Night in Montreal. And she agrees with me: if anything, Mandel's getting even better. HIGHLY recommended.
I enjoyed Mandel's first book, reviewed here, and her second book provides another great read. Anton Waker is at a crossroads in his life. Until recently, his existence was largely based on participating in the shady dealings of the family business. Now he wants to clean up his morals and get out, but not before his cousin Aria demands he run one last job for her. Torn between thoughts of his affair with his co-worker and his indifferent bride to be, Anton agrees and heads towards events that are ultimately inevitable. THE SINGER'S GUN is a worthy sophomore novel that reads true enough to be ripped from today's headlines. Emily St. John Mandel has a liquid style of writing where she can tell multiple story lines simultaneously and switch tenses between present and past, all the while keeping the pacing flowing smoothly. The way she unfolds Anton's story through the chapters captured my attention and held it rapt until I finished. Mandel understands that people are never one-dimensional, and so she writes her characters deeply layered. It will be interesting to watch her grow as an author in her future books.
To some degree or another, we all live in a caste society. The Singer's Gun offers us an antidote: If you cleave with all your might to your own deepest nature, the rewards will be -- goddamned Mediterranean in nature. This is not your soulless Horatio Alger dogged overcoming-of-obstacles; it is the transformative oomph of the personal lodestone. When coupled with shady imports, felonious forgery a skewering look at illegal immigration -- and of course Emily St. John Mandel's sly prose -- The Singer's Gun becomes a passport out of -- well, whatever the reader happens to be mired in at the moment of that reading. And a passport -- as we learn in all of Mandel's work -- is a *very* valuable thing.