Reviewed by Kristen Valentine
Andy Hayes has a lot going on. Twenty years ago, he was a college football star with the world at his feet. Now, he’s a slightly washed-up private investigator in the same football-crazed town he disappointed by getting himself thrown in jail right before a big game his senior year—and Columbus, Ohio isn’t about to let him forget it any time soon. And while still dodging jabs from bitter ex-fans who lost good money on that game, Andy also has a genuine mystery on his hands, and it all starts with a laptop protected by the password jarjarbinksmustdie.
Initially hired to track down a video-taped indiscretion between a government lobbyist and a teenaged girl, Andy quickly locates the computer in question—but it turns out to be a very popular laptop. Before Andy can erase the video, the device is stolen, a man ends up dead, and Andy is suddenly caught in a tangled web of motives. What else is on that laptop? It might be financial documents possibly exposing an insurance scam, or it could be some college English essays that weren’t written by the Ohio State football players who turned them in. But Andy learns the truth may be even darker as he discovers an old secret someone would—and will—kill to conceal.
Fourth Down and Out is an enjoyable private eye tale set in a city vastly underrepresented in crime fiction (okay, so I live here; maybe I’m biased!). Andy is likeable, tough when he wants to be but generally on the friendlier side of hard-boiled. As likeable as he is, I do wonder if he might have had a more interesting point of view if he was written as a darker, more troubled character, maybe one just as unable to forget his past as his fans.
The writing is solid throughout—after all, the author is also a reporter with the Associated Press—and the settings are richly described. I admire Welsh-Huggins for choosing to set this new series in my city, though at times he falls into a trap of overexplaining in a way that calls unnecessary attention to the fact that Columbus is not a typical city for the genre, even though it could be. Then again, it makes me wonder if readers in New York or Chicago or any other place with its own gestalt feel the same way in terms of the overexplaining about fiction set in their cities. My instinct says no, because given that gestalt, it’s reference rather than explanation. But please do correct me if I’m wrong. I’m curious about this one.
The novel falls into another trap of the genre as well—multiple storylines that feel like they’re about to converse, but don’t. Midway into the saga of the laptop, Andy takes another case—this time, an English prof (at a different college than the building football player scandal) hires Andy to follow his wife a few days a week to see if she’s having an affair. This storyline never connects back to the main plot despite the obvious areas where they could overlap, leaving me to wonder why, besides giving Andy more to do, was it included at all.
Midwesterners and football fans will find the most enjoyment in Fourth Down and Out, but even for private eye fans at large, this is a promising new series with a lot of charm.