The story opens in a bar as our protagonist, buzzing on meth, eyes his fellow patrons for transportable accessories. The man he picks for his target, an ominously large fellow, has $40,000 in hundreds in his stylish trench coat. That wad of cash, needless to say, isn't the boon our protagonist-cum-addict might hope for.
That's the setup for the principal story in Tony Knighton's Happy Hour: And Other Philadelphia Cruelties. The book's style aspires to reach the pinnacles of George Pelecanos (D.C.) or Dennis Lehane (Boston) in that it is deeply rooted in a very specific urban environment of the Northeast Corridor. The opening chapters of Happy Hour even include a madcap chase from the Wanamaker Building to City Hall, down into the 15th Street subway station, and back through the tunnels to the 13th Street station. Not a bad way to shake an incredibly brassed-off thug, if dodging heavy rail transit is a skill you possess.
Happy Hour is Knighton's first book and is informed in equal parts by his (almost) lifelong residency in Philadelphia, his nearly 30 years with the firefighters, and his insatiable appetite for crime fiction. He's a fan of James Ellroy, Donald Westlake (under the alias Richard Stark), and George V. Higgins, the Boston prosecutor-turned-novelist. Knighton buys every used copy of Higgins' debut, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, that he sees. There are always others who haven't read Higgins, to their detriment.
Knighton started writing 12 years ago after years of talking about it at the local tavern with his friends. He decided to quit drinking and spend his time at a desk after work instead of at a bar stool.
"I've always read pretty voraciously and, like a lot of people, thought about writing when I read something poorly written - I could do better than this," says Knighton. "I made a pact with myself to stop thinking about things and start doing them. I would find out pretty quickly if I wasn't any good."
Judging by Happy Hour, Knighton made the right choice. The story unspools in one long chase over the course of a night. There are a few fumbles, and everything ties together too neatly, but on the whole, it is a gripping and fast-paced thriller, with a protagonist who is relatable, if not likable. (He used to be a white-collar guy, but got hooked on speed and was reduced to petty theft.)
Knighton has lived in Mount Airy since 1963 - not counting a year in Toronto and a few more in the Marines - and he will give a reading from Happy Hour at Mount Airy Read & Eat (the successor to Walk a Crooked Mile), 7141 Germantown Ave., on Thursday starting at 7 p.m. Admission is free. Happy Hour: And Other Philadelphia Cruelties is available on Amazon's Kindle app for $6, and will be for sale in print later this summer.
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