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"[A] funny, craftily malevolent first novel, an ice-pick sharp crime story that sustains its film noir energy all the way to an outrageous whammy of an ending."—Janet Maslin, The New York Times

"[An] astonishing debut novel from a writer who manages to put a funny, modernist spin on a piece of our noir past: Jim Thompson frosted with a blast of Jonathan (Motherless Brooklyn) Lethem."—Chicago Tribune

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Review by Joe Hartlaub from

I have a consumer product warning for you. The good people at Ballantine Books apparently had a print batch where they mixed a bit of super glue in with the typeset. I discovered this when I picked up the book THE ICE HARVEST by Scott Phillips and couldn't put it down for three hours. Oh, yeah, one other thing—after a few hours of sleep I had to sit down and read it again. Yes, it's that good.

THE ICE HARVEST is Scott Phillips's first novel; he is reportedly working on another, and I'm impatient for it already on the strength of the first one. There are authors—good authors, mind you—who have yet to write a book as good as this one. They'll be reading THE ICE HARVEST a couple of times too, trying to figure out just how Phillips slugged it out of the park his first time up to the plate.

The story takes place on Christmas Eve, 1979, in Wichita, Kansas, a mid-sized, middle American city that is quiet on the surface but boils and festers underneath. The reader gets to spend the night with Charlie Arglist, an attorney who traded a mildly successful practice for employment with a group of shady characters. Charlie is killing time, waiting for a 2 A.M. meeting with someone named Vic. He makes the rounds in Wichita, visiting bars, strip clubs, an adult bookstore, and a massage parlor—establishments with which he has a vague, uneasy connection. As we follow Charlie around, we learn that he drinks too much, keeps bad company, and is poster boy for Bad Father of the Year. We also learn that his life over the previous several years—probably commencing at the point at which he left his private practice—is slowly but inexorably coming unhinged. And on Christmas Eve, 1979, Charlie, once he has his meeting with Vic, will have reached the point of no return.

Phillips strikes an incredible balance in THE ICE HARVEST: the reader knows what is happening but never knows from one page to the next what is going on. And it isn't a cheat; Charlie doesn't really know, either. Not really. The characters in THE ICE HARVEST don't behave predictably. They behave the way real people do, which is erratically and inconsistently. It is simply incredible the way Phillips nails every single person that he brings into his novel, from Charlie, who is with us from first page to last, to sullen gas station attendants who disappear after a paragraph or two. As if all of the foregoing was not enough for one book, Phillips waits until the last 10 pages of the book to introduce two major characters. You'll never guess the ending.

THE ICE HARVEST succeeds on so many levels—as a mystery, as a suspense novel, and perhaps most significantly, as a subtle character study—that I would not be surprised to find it one day included in an American Literature curriculum. It deserves a place on everyone's bookshelf, right next to THE LAST GOOD KISS by James Crumley. Highest possible recommendation.




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