Underground Airlines

After successfully fusing the detective genre with apocalyptic speculative fiction in his excellent Last Policeman trilogy, Ben H. Winters has created another masterly genre-bender with his novel Underground Airlines. Set in a United States where the Civil War never happened, it retains the noir-inflected detective protagonist (of a sort) and swaps out the doomsday backdrop for an impressively realized alternate history. In Winters's version of American history, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated soon after his election, and to avert war, the government passed a series of compromises allowing slavery to continue in slave-holding states. In the present day, the remaining slave states have been whittled down to the infamous Hard Four, which practice a perversely "modernized" form of industrial-scale slavery.

Victor, the protagonist, knows the horrors of the Hard Four from personal experience. After escaping them, he was captured by the U.S. Marshalls and forced to become a bounty hunter tracking down fellow escapees. Now embittered by the choices he's made to stay free, Victor is a consummate pessimist, frequently reiterating his fatalistic motto "everything happens." He is embarking yet again on the "devil's work," but as so often happens in noir, this case turns out to be far more complex than Victor would have ever predicted.

Underground Airlines is an undeniably entertaining novel. Winters doles out twists and turns at perfect intervals--his pacing is all-around excellent. The parallels with modern-day racism in the United States are difficult to miss. Ben Winters, in other words, makes no compromises with Underground Airlines. He has improbably created a novel that calls to mind Raymond Chandler and Ta-Nehisi Coates in equal measure. --Hank Stephenson, bookseller, Flyleaf Books

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