The Good Detective

The Good Detective

by John McMahon


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A New York Times Book Review Top 10 Crime Novel for the Year

"John McMahon is one of those rare writers who seem to have sprung out of nowhere. His first novel, The Good Detective, which is pretty much perfect, features a decent if flawed hero battling personal troubles while occupied with a murder case of great consequence to his community."—New York Times Book Review

Introducing Detective P.T. Marsh in a swift and bruising debut where Elmore Leonard's staccato prose meets Greg Iles' Southern settings.

How can you solve a crime if you've killed the prime suspect?

Detective P.T. Marsh was a rising star on the police force of Mason Falls, Georgia—until his wife and young son died in an accident. Since that night, he's lost the ability to see the line between smart moves and disastrous decisions. Such as when he agrees to help out a woman by confronting her abusive boyfriend. When the next morning he gets called to the scene of his newest murder case, he is stunned to arrive at the house of the very man he beat up the night before. He could swear the guy was alive when he left, but can he be sure? What's certain is that his fingerprints are all over the crime scene.

The trouble is only beginning. When the dead body of a black teenager is found in a burned-out field with a portion of a blackened rope around his neck, P.T. realizes he might have killed the number-one suspect of this horrific crime.

Amid rising racial tension and media scrutiny, P.T. uncovers something sinister at the heart of the boy's murder—a conspiracy leading all the way back to the time of the Civil War. Risking everything to unravel the puzzle even as he fights his own personal demons, P.T. races headlong toward an incendiary and life-altering showdown.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Marilyn Stasio

John McMahon is one of those rare writers who seem to have sprung out of nowhere. His first novel, The Good Detective, which is pretty much perfect, features a decent if flawed hero battling personal troubles while occupied with a murder case of great consequence to his community…Once in a while that fabled Southern lyricism surfaces…but for the most part [McMahon's] writing is painfully, almost unbearably, matter-of-fact…

Publishers Weekly


Det. P.T. Marsh, the narrator of McMahon’s ambitious if flawed first novel, set in rural Mason Falls, Ga., has promised to help Crimson, a stripper he met at a strip club, whose boyfriend has physically abused her. One evening, he drives over to Crimson’s house, where he punches and threatens the boyfriend. When the boyfriend is strangled that same night, Marsh—who’s struggling with alcoholism and still reeling from an accident that killed his family—wonders whether in a drunken stupor he might have murdered the guy. Later, when a 15-year-old African-American boy, a Baptist preacher’s son, is lynched, the chief suspect turns out to be the man Marsh may have strangled. Investigating the boy’s lynching takes Marsh into an intricate, decades-old conspiracy. McMahon tends to explain too much, and this debut reads at times like an earnest message novel wrapped in the guise of an action-packed Hollywood thriller. Still, he’s a talented writer with a good sense of place, and readers are sure to look forward to Marsh’s next outing. Agent: Marly Rusoff, Marly Rusoff & Assoc. (Mar.)

From the Publisher

Praise for The Good Detective

“The Good Detective by John McMahon is a promising police procedural debut novel with all the ingredients of a fast-paced thriller.”—Mystery Tribune

“This unusually accomplished debut is the first in a projected series; with Marsh still having demons to deal with, the table is set for much more compelling, character-centric stories to come. Crime-fiction fans are advised to get in at the start.”—Booklist (starred review)

“Southern gothic mingles with modern noir…”—Kirkus Reviews

“[John McMahon is] a talented writer with a good sense of place, and readers are sure to look forward to Marsh’s next outing.”—Publishers Weekly

“First fiction is dangerous business: many aspire, few succeed. Not so with John McMahon's debut, The Good Detective. Tight, fast and addictive, I blistered this book in a single day. It has everything top-drawer crime fiction demands: murder, conflict, and a damaged, compelling hero, all delivered in prose so crisp and clean McMahon presents like an old pro. If he had a second novel on the shelves, I'd be reading it right now.”—John Hart, New York Times bestselling author of The Hush

“In The Good Detective McMahon skillfully blends the old and the new and weaves it into spun gold.”—Reed Farrel Coleman, New York Times bestselling author of Robert B. Parker’s Colorblind

“The Good Detective is a debut with all of the ingredients: snappy procedural details, a sharp sense of place in the Deep South, and relentless momentum.  John McMahon's outstanding first in the series introduces a sardonic and sympathetic lead in P.T. Marsh, and launches both McMahon and Marsh into what promises to be a great career in crime fiction.”—Glen Erik Hamilton, author of Hard Cold Winter and Past Crimes

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525535539
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/19/2019
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 488,875
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt


A fist banged on my driver's-side window, and my eyes flew open. I lunged for my Glock 42. Nearly shot my foot off.

Two white eyeballs glared at me through the darkness.

Horace Ordell.

"You okay, P.T.?" he hollered.

The first thing you gotta know about Horace is that his ass is the size of a small nation. So to get him moving takes an act of war.

I looked at the clock in my Ford F-150: 2:47 a.m.

"You were screaming in your sleep," Horace said. The big man's body was parked a foot outside my door. "Could hear you way the hell yonder."

My eyes drifted to the bouncer's stool where Horace resided most nights. A neon sign above it read The Landing Patch, and two curved strips of light displayed what very unsubtly looked like a woman's legs, opening and closing. And opening and closing again.

I took in the smell of tobacco plants after the rain. The scent of old Georgia dirt.

"Everything all right inside the club?" I asked, opening my truck door.

Horace bobbed his bald head, his skin dark as night. He'd played O-line for Alabama until he blew out his knee.

Behind him, the strip club was housed in an old log mill, set along protected county land beside the Tullumy River. What were once windows for ventilation had been covered with rusted metal signs to block out the light. Drink Coca-Cola, one read. Eat Utz Chips, another.

I glanced at myself in the rearview mirror before getting out. Wavy brown hair. Bloodshot blue eyes.

I also saw into the back of the cab, where Purvis lay. Sweet Purvis, my seven-year-old bulldog. The look he gave me lately was always the same: You're spiraling since she's gone, P.T. Grab ahold of something.

But I'm not the type to reach out and grab. Hugs, for instance. I was never a big hugger. Even before my wife's accident.

I stepped out of the truck, and Horace kept yammering.

"I don't mean you were screaming a little, P.T.," he said. "It was more like History Channel, Army flashback type shit."

"You can go back to your post, Horace," I said. "I'm fine."

Of course I wasn't fine. I was five counties from fine.

Horace stared at the ground, his mind hatching something. "Or I could call someone?"

The look on his face was odd. A nervous smirk maybe. "Like who?" I said.

"I dunno." He shrugged. "Another cop? I know you had a couple drinks. Maybe he comes out here and has you walk the line. Throws some cuffs on you?" He hesitated. "Or you could tip me? A lotta folks tip me."

I almost smiled. A shit-heel like Horace threatening a detective who'd experienced what I'd been through. If brains were leather, this guy didn't have enough to saddle a june bug.

I reached into my truck, and Horace took a cautious step back. Then he saw the highball glass in my hand. I'd brought it out earlier from the Landing Patch, and it was still full.

I handed him the glass and got back in the truck. The night sky was a shade of violet, with purplish-gray cumulus clouds that looked like overstuffed pillows.

"Here's a tip," I said to Horace, "don't go mistaking grief for weakness."

I fired up the engine, and a paper crinkled in my flannel shirt pocket under my seat belt. Unfolding it, I stared at a single word as Horace walked away.


The penmanship was as neat as could be expected, considering it had been written in eyeliner and penned in the dark.

I flipped the paper over. The other side had an address on it: 426 E. 31st. 'B.'

"Damn it," I said, remembering the stripper and her story from the previous night. She was a redhead with bruises that ran the length of both legs. I had promised her I'd come by and flash my badge. Scare the shit out of her abusive boyfriend.

My eyeballs were floating, and I needed to find a bathroom. I pulled onto I-32.

My name is P.T. Marsh, and Mason Falls, Georgia, is my town. It's not a huge place, but it's grown a decent size in the last decade. Lately we top out around 130,000 souls. A lot of that growth has come from two airlines setting up shop here as a place where they refurbish commercial airplanes. The bulk of those planes get repainted and sold to overseas airlines you've never heard of. But some of them end up right back in the friendly skies above. It's kind of like plastic surgery in the better neighborhoods of Buckhead. Slap on a fresh coat of paint and some new carpet, and no one notices how worn-out the bodies are underneath.

I made it through the cute areas of town. The parts where, during the day, tourists window-shop for Civil War-era vases. Where college kids eat chicken-fried steak and get drunk on buckets of Terrapin Rye.

The numbered streets came then, and along with them, the parts of town where folks lived who worked on those airplanes. The scrubbers, recarpeters, and painters.

I passed 15th Street, 20th, 25th. It had rained while I was asleep at the Landing Patch, and small lakes formed in poorly paved side streets.

I parked my truck behind an abandoned Big Lots off 30th and got out, cutting through the dark neighborhood on foot.

After a few minutes, I found the address on the paper, a worn-down bungalow home. The letter B and an arrow had been spray-painted on the driveway, pointing at a detached back unit.

Crimson's place.

Small white Christmas lights were on in one window, the only sign of the coming holiday. I walked closer. The bedroom had an entrance that led in from the driveway. Through the screen door, I could see Crimson, faceup on the bed.

The redhead lay there in cutoff jeans and a V-neck with no bra. Her cheeks showed fresh bruises, and her T-shirt bore the face of a Georgia bulldog in pink. I had told her that I'd come by official, with a squad car, a day earlier.

Don't make promises you can't keep, P.T.

It was Purvis's voice that I heard. Of course, he's a brown and white bulldog with a bad underbite, and I'd left him back in the truck by the Big Lots. So maybe it was my voice and his face. The subconscious works in strange ways. Or is that God?

I made my way inside, hurrying to see if Crimson was alive. I leaned over and checked her pulse. She'd been knocked to hell and back, but her breathing was fine.

I shook her awake, and it took a moment for her to recognize me.

"Your boyfriend here?" I asked.

In the dim light, she pointed to the living room. "He's sleeping."

"You got a friend you can stay with for a couple hours? Let me talk some sense into him?"

Crimson nodded, grabbing her sweatshirt and purse.

I moved to the living room, and my eyes adjusted to the dark. Crimson's boyfriend was passed out in a sitting pose on the couch in a dirty tank top and jeans.

A brick of weed sat on a wooden table by the couch, and one of the boyfriend's hands was wrapped in gauze. A strip of dried blood was smeared across the fabric.

So here's the thing.

You spend the first thirty-six years of your life learning a value system. What's right. What's wrong. And when to say "To hell with it" and toss the rules aside.

But you accumulate things too. A house. A mortgage. A wife and kid. And somewhere along the way, those responsibilities matter more than right and wrong. Because there's consequences. Doing absolute right can create problems for you and your family. For your career.

For me, that was the road I'd been on. A beautiful wife. Young son. And I'd been as happy as a pig in shit going down that path.

But someone came along and took my responsibilities away. Took away my family. And all they left me with was absolute justice.

I ran my flashlight over the boyfriend's chest. He looked to be in his early thirties. A muscle-bound five foot nine. Shaved head and a blond goatee. A tattoo on his biceps read 88. The eighth letter of the alphabet, H. Two H's, for Heil Hitler.

So you're a neo-Nazi who beats up strippers.

The man's mouth was open, and a bead of drool hung down from the corner of it. A half-empty bottle of Jack was curled under his right arm.

I sat down on an armchair a foot from him. Grabbed a dish towel nearby and wrapped the soft cloth around my fist.

"Hey, dipshit," I said.

His eyes fluttered open, and he sat up. A look to the bedroom. Maybe he had a gun there. Or maybe he was wondering if I'd seen the condition he'd left Crimson in.

"Who the hell are you?" he mumbled, disoriented. He smelled like pomade and tobacco.

"Don't worry," I said. "The cops are here."


I punched him hard, square in the face.

"Jesus," he said, holding his hand to his nose. Blood surged through his fingers and onto his shirt.

He glared at me, waking up now. "Y'all just can't break into people's houses-"

I hit him again. The first time was for Crimson, the second for emphasis. His head popped backward and hit the couch.

"What do you want?" He sniffed. A stripe of blood across his teeth.

I looked around the place, taking in every detail.

There was a time when the Mason Falls Register called me "a detective who missed nothing." And then a more recent time when a case didn't go so well and they used the word "sloppy." I guess you can't stay on top forever.

"Your full attention," I said.

The boyfriend was still playing defense. He glanced at a frog gig leaning against the far wall. Maybe he was fixin' to stick me with the two-pronged pole.

I picked up a lighter from off the table. Lit the corner of the brick of pot on fire.

"The people that belongs to," he said, "they won't care who the hell you are-"

"Shhh." I bent forward and laid the head of my Glock against his jeans, right at the kneecap. "Do I have your undivided attention?"

"Yeah," he said, and I tapped the gun on his knee.

"You touch her one more time." I pointed at the bedroom. "One more tiny bruise on her, and I will take that bloody fist of yours and blow each finger off. One at a time. Like target practice. Y'understand?"

He nodded slowly, and I got up. Walked out.


I got the call at eight a.m. while I was still sleeping.

"We got a hot one," Remy Morgan said.

Remy is my partner, and I often tell her that she smells like milk. This is my joke that she's young. Like twenty-five years young. She's also African American, so sometimes she warns me, "Don't say chocolate milk, P.T., or I'll beat your ass."

I pulled the covers off my head. "What's the case?" I asked hoarsely into my cell phone. I was still wearing my jeans, but no T-shirt or flannel.

"We got a dead guy," Remy said.

I looked around for my shirt, but didn't see it. Shook Purvis from atop my legs. This would be Remy's third murder case, and I could hear that rookie detective excitement in her voice. "Dead good guy or dead bad guy?"

"Dead bad guy," she said. "And probably beaten to death by other bad guys. I'll come get you."

I was out of the shower in five minutes. Pulled on gray slacks and tucked in a white button-down.

Cracking open the fridge, I looked for something to eat. I was developing a new diet that involved stale food, mold, and a lot of instant hot cereal. I could feel a bestseller coming. Or maybe it was a stomach flu.

A car beeped outside, and I glanced through the blue curtains that my wife, Lena, had put up before Thanksgiving of last year. That was four weeks before the accident.

Remy's '77 Alfa Romeo Spider was at the curb. I hurried out and squeezed into the passenger seat.

"Where's the scene?" I asked.

"Numbered streets," she said.

It sprinkled as we drove, and the trees in the median along Baker Street drooped under the weight of the water. Remy told me about an extreme mud run that she'd won second place in during the weekend.

"You don't get enough excitement being a cop during the week?" I asked. "You gotta pay someone to get you dirty and let off fake explosions?"

Remy scrunched her brow. She had the sculpted cheekbones of a fashion model. "Don't be an old man, P.T."

I knew how competitive Remy was. "Well, if you came in second, who won the thing?"

"Some fireman from Marietta."

Remy shrugged before letting out a smile. "He won twice actually. I gave him my number."

I grinned at this, cranking down my window. The wet weather had begun Sunday, and the humidity in between thunderstorms had bleached the blue out of the Georgia sky and made everything a dull military gray.

As we approached 30th Street, I saw the Big Lots where I'd parked the night before, and a lump started to form in my throat. Partly because I don't believe in coincidences. But mostly because there are no coincidences.

We pulled in front of Crimson's house on 31st, and I gulped at the humid air coming in the window. The house looked even worse in daylight. More paint had peeled off the facade than was on it.

Remy got out of the car. She had on a pin-striped blouse and black slacks. She tries to dress down how good she looks with these bookish glasses and business suits. But between the two of us, we're the best-looking pair of detectives in town. Of course, in the area of homicide, there's only one other set, but hey.

Remy handed me blue latex gloves, and we walked up the driveway. I passed the letter B and the arrow.

"The victim's male or female?" I asked.

"Male," Remy said. "Twenty-nine years old."

When you left here, P.T., he was alive.

Quiet, Purvis. I need to concentrate.

"We got any witnesses who saw the murder?" I asked.

"Not so far," Remy said. "But the day's young. We haven't canvassed yet."

I looked around. The next-door neighbor's house had plywood covering the side windows. There were thick dark knots soaked with rain that caused the wood to bow.

I nodded to Darren Gattling, who stood by the front door. Darren's a blue-suiter who I'd mentored five years earlier.

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