Book Review: Joe Clifford’s ‘Rag and Bone’ Looks at the Gritty Side of Rural New Hampshire

"Rag and Bone" by Joe Clifford.

Beer, brawls, bad behavior… Joe Clifford’s fifth book in his Jay Porter series delivers once again for guys, though “Rag and Bone” may also appeal to women intrigued by what constitutes a hardcore male mystique in crime fiction (the protagonist “bulled up the sidewalk”). The author photograph, alone, may prove seductive: Clifford smiling, arms crossed over a black tee, an attractive man, a hunk some might say, with an unbelievably colorful tattooed right arm that resembles a modernist abstract painting (the left arm also has a tat, but it’s much less extensive). “Rag And Bone” may also appeal to generation X-ers, Clifford’s contemporaries, especially because of music references, but he’s savvy about movies, too, and slyly notes that screen crime is not real-world crime; no one, for example, gets killed in prison because of a “hit.”

On a brief acknowledgments page, Clifford, 37, an award-winning crime and mystery writer and editor, acknowledges his difficult earlier life of heroin and methamphetamine addiction that left him homeless, and the death of his troubled younger brother, whose presence haunts the protagonist of “Rag and Bone.” Much of that life informs “Rag and Bone,” though not necessarily as a reader might expect, even as Clifford says in the acknowledgments that he hopes his series has “shone a light on the marginalized and helped put a face on the [drug and alcohol] addicted,” and that “maybe in the process [he] made a few folks feel a little less alone.”

“Rag and Bone” is anything but a sentimental, good intentions over bad actions narrative. Full of violence, it’s all crime and no mystery, with protagonist Jay Porter yielding only temporarily to regret and self-control, not reform or happiness. He messes up with women though they find him attractive, and with those who want to help him, including the local police. As the last sentence of the novel puts it — Jay raising a beer to toast “old ghosts.” — “I win, I said to no one.” He is indeed alone, but Porter fans know he’ll likely be back.

The book resonates with authenticity, but arguably, its most effective element is the writing about hardscrabble areas in New Hampshire in winter, and the sly signaling of character and plot, as in the opening paragraph: “When I stepped in from the snow and cold and pushed open the precinct doors, the first thing I saw was my face on the wall. A composite sketch that didn’t look anything like me, faxed and faded, copied too many times, likeness unintelligible. Should’ve asked my ex-wife for a picture. No wonder they hadn’t caught me.”

As for rural New Hampshire, an area celebrated for its natural Americana charm, Jay hails from small-town Ashton, “population two cows short of a graze,” which had never seen folks on the most wanted list, “At least before the drugs started coming in.” Clifford knows whereof he writes and what newspapers today confirm — a Northeast overrun by drugs and vagrants — people who were “bad at living, bad at making decisions, bad at being human.”

Jay’s been on the run, a former “rag and bone” man — one who clears estates for sale — in prison for a while, unfairly targeted, now out to get revenge on those who he believes set him up, politically powerful brothers in town who push everyone around. Now a handyman at large, he’s intent on having justice served. It doesn’t matter that he was innocent of a trumped-up murder charge, he’s been “branded a killer in the court of public opinion,” and in small town Ashton, ”that was the only court that mattered.”

He would reclaim, if he could, his ex-wife and, for sure, his eight-year-old son, not to mention possibly starting anew with a beautiful divorcée who runs a rehab that suspiciously has just been burned down, but he cannot stop leading into trouble, especially when a habitual six-pack is by his side, which is almost always. He knows the “first rule” when he used to play amateur detective, that in the world of investigation, amateurs shouldn’t do it. Jay Porter is constantly being reminded of rules but constantly goes against them. He’s a short fuse, a likable guy who just can’t get it together. But Clifford can.