Book Review: Made Safe by Francis Sparks

Murder comes to Des Moines in Francis Sparks’ Made Safe. And things are just getting warmed up at that point in this wintry Midwestern neo-noir debut.

Made Safe by Francis SparksMade Safe starts with the familiar elements of crime. Moses Winter, a middle-aged, down-on-his-luck private detective gets in over his head while investigating a cheating husband.

He forges an unlikely, and sometimes too trusting, partnership with Raif Rakić, a Bosnian immigrant who’s earned his way to detective on the city police department. Rakić steals the show at first. He bends the rules to protect his cousin, who is the dead husband’s mistress. He stifles anger and old trauma from atrocities in the old country.

Winter seems flatter at first, stumbling from one clue to another and taking a beating for it along the way, but his depth and drive blossom as Sparks reveals more of the Des Moines locale and Winter’s native born familiarity with it. He’s less familiar with the Bosnian underworld he discovers, including the vampy Majka, who has more to do with the conspiracy than Winter wants to admit when she starts up a love affair with him. Winter is sharp and good hearted, and he grows into an likable guy.

Winter’s relationship with Majka mirrors his with Rakić. They warm to Winter a little too abruptly, but they’re necessary strands to make the mystery drive on. Drive on it does. Winter discovers a human trafficking ring — young girls from Europe herded literally like cattle with a chilling amorality. There are surprises here, though at the expense of a too-connected string of characters.

Winter time Des Moines provides a unique backdrop. Sparks crafts what seems at first a plain city and straightforward place, but becomes a murky setting that takes on the sturdy grays of film noir, suffering, and uncertain resolution. His ending teases readers a little too harshly, but the crime story holds up.