Canary by Duane Swierczynski

Canary by Duane Swierczynski

In a classic case of ‘wrong place, wrong time’, college student Sarie Holland is pulled over and busted by the cops while doing a favour for a drug-dealing friend, D.  Looking at a possible five years minimum in prison for possession, she’s offered an alternative – become a C.I. (confidential informant) for narcotics officer Ben Wildey (pronounced will-dee).

Wildey wants Sarie to give up her pill-pushing pal but it isn’t that easy; Sarie harbors hopes for a more-than-friends relationship with D.  Rather than give Wildey what he wants, Sarie opts to seek out and find other dealers in Philadelphia, something that frustrates both Sarie and Wildey when neither party is getting what they want.

Can Sarie keep her double life a secret from her family?  Can she keep the cops off the trail of her would-be boyfriend?  Can she stay alive in the face of the mean streets of Philadelphia?

Canary moves at a brisk pace and rather than following one character the whole way through, Swierczynski explores a multitude of techniques to get the story across.  Through text messages, journal entries, phone conversation transcripts and straight up narration, Swierczynski presents a compelling story that had me gripped for hours.

In my interview with Duane in 2013, he noted he had been working on his most Philadelphia-centric novel yet in Canary.  He wasn’t kidding.  Canary tackles some heavy issues surrounding The Badlands, a section of Philly that could be used as a backdrop for a post-apocalyptic Hollywood blockbuster.  Rows of abandoned brick houses and dilapidated warehouses are the result of a lack of industry for the working class, replaced with a debilitating drug culture that has ravaged the neighbourhoods residents.



Canary’s Detective Ben Wildey hopes to change that.  Wildey’s grandfather was a cop who had worked through the great depression, some of the roughest times the city had ever seen.  Ben is looking to carry on that family tradition by setting up shop in the heart of the enemy.  With Wildey, Swierczynski presents a driven detective who will do just about anything to clean up the streets and in his meetings and conversations with several of his C.I.’s, it shows.



The other half of Canary’s two leads, Sarie Holland, is a smart and resourceful college freshman.  It’s hard to figure out what is driving her behaviour more – the fear of being sent to prison or her desire to keep D. out of Wildey’s reach.  There’s no question that at heart Sarie is an inherently good person, but her decision-making ability is certainly suspect.  There were parts in Canary where I wanted to grab Sarie by the shoulders and shake her, asking her to listen to reason.  But what the hell do I know?  I suppose it goes to show that none of us really know what we’re capable of when facing nearly impossible decisions.

Canary is another strong addition to an already strong catalogue of work from Swierczynski.  Crime fiction fans, you’re doing yourselves a serious disservice if you haven’t checked him out yet.


Mini documentary about the Philadelphia Badlands from 1998.
Trailer for the documentary How to Make Money Selling Drugs that Duane listed in his acknowledgements as invaluable during the writing of Canary.

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