Review of Shotgun Lullaby by Steve Ulfelder

Conway Sax, a recovered alcoholic with a checkered past, is a man who pays for his sins one favor at a time. In Shotgun Lullaby, the third book in the series, the initial favor is squaring a small car loan debt for one Gus Biletnikov, a wiseass college boy who recently joined the Barnburners (think: Alcoholics Anonymous, but even more intense).  After Sax erases the debt with his fists, he takes a keen interest in helping Gus stay sober and get back on his feet, for the young Biletnikov reminds Sax of his own estranged son.  But the real problems start when Biletnikov falls off the wagon.  First, someone guns down a kid staying in Biletnikov’s room at Almost Home, a halfway house for people fresh out of a rehab or jail. Figuring (correctly) that Biletnikov was the actual target, Sax vows to find out who is after Gus Biletnikov…and why.  This leads to problems with the sordid cast of characters in Biletnikov’s orbit, which includes a gorgeous, but hatable step mother, a smooth-talking con man, a burnt-out drug dealer whose in love with Gus, and a father-son duo of gangsters.  The plot in this one keeps you guessing until the very end.

But what makes this installment of the series stand out is the depths to which Sax is willing to go to redeem himself and, at least in part, to do penance for his past transgressions. Loyalty is not just a word with Conway Sax; it is a lifestyle.  True, Sax has a black and white view of the world and is intensely loyal. He is also prone to fits of rage and violence, but he is not a violent or immoral man. Similar to the violence depicted in Breaking Bad, the violence in this novel is not gratuitous; every punch thrown, every gunshot fired, every life taken costs Sax something, and, by extension, costs the reader something.  This, in a way, elevates this book (and the series) beyond the typical PI/mystery book genre, makes it social commentary…highly readable, extremely enjoyable commentary.

Bottom line, Conway Sax is a good man, and in today’s world where people’s loyalties and moral compasses change depending on self-interest and survival, there is something incredibly admirable about this character’s dedication to family and friends. Put another way, I not enjoy reading these books, I actually relate to Conway Sax. Perhaps it is my INTJ personality, but like Sax, I take my commitments seriously and never give myself a break. Neither does Sax. This makes him the most realistic fictional PI out there right now.  This series is, in a word, revelatory. I hope to one day write something this good…and this relevant.

shotgun lullaby