Friday, July 12, 2024

A detail of Alex Peltz’s cover of “The Girl in the Boston Box” by Chuck Latovich.

I get a kick out of reading books set where I live. But the fun of Chuck Latovich’s thriller “The Girl in the Boston Box” goes way beyond a savvy dissection of South End real estate and dead accurate descriptions of T travel from Harvard Square to Fenway Park. The book is slick, sophisticated and provides more moments of pleasantly electric shock than you could reasonably expect.


The action follows two asynchronous tracks: Middle-aged Mark Chieswicz narrates from the spring of 2017, a down-on-his-luck Duck Boat Tour guide who discovers his estranged brother has been living in Boston – by being told by police that he’s been stabbed to death; young Caitlyn Gautry is followed from roughly a year earlier, pursuing a Harvard doctoral thesis about an architectural oddity called “the Boston box.” The two threads intersect, of course, and the way they do is only one of those terrific “oh, shit” moments Latovich delivers.

Along the way, local readers will recognize where the heroes go and the things they see, even the ones Latovich makes up, which is less surprising when you learn the author is a Cantabrigian with a Boston University degree in journalism. Everything from a namedrop of the late Rev. Peter Gomes to descriptions of how Duck Boat Tour guides are scheduled feels lived, even if it’s more likely the details are simply meticulously researched. There are a few chuckles along the way (the Jamaicaway is described as “evidently engineered by someone who liked car crashes”) and mercifully few winces (including every time we have to read another unnecessary text exchange, especially among the, you know, kids).

Latovich is working with a couple of disadvantages. First is the shadow of author Dan Brown of “The Da Vinci Code” and its sequels, which star a Harvard “symbologist” who follows obscure clues to revelations of historical significance. “The Girl in the Boston Box” shares elements but is the farthest thing from a knockoff. It’s a smooth read and a page-turner, but not a film treatment in the form of a novel like Brown churns out. “Boston Box” is too intent on building to a satisfying climax and denouement to throw in a cheap tease at the end of each chapter – Latovich is more about resolving underlying mysteries, which he withholds to so late in the book that anyone checking how many pages are left will go a little crazy wondering how he pulls it off. It’s actually pretty masterful how he ties everything together, which makes it easy to forgive a bit of character-driven clunkiness early on. But Latovich actually does have characters, rather than stand-ins for Hollywood stars to be attached later. (If nothing else, “Boston Box” is aggressively woke in ways that subvert expectations for what seems initially to be a male-centered thriller, and it gets more credit for being fairly realistic about technology.)

The other disadvantage is the pall of self-publishing, which is justifiably fading. Latovich has produced a polished, professional book with agreeable typography and a cover design by Alex Peltz that pays sly homage to Saul Bass’ work for Hitchcock. You may encounter a rare editing slip such as a “pouring over” instead of “poring over,” but the strip mining of the legit publishing industry over the past couple of decades makes it as likely you’ll find that error in pages put out by Knopf or Random House. No one questions an independent podcast, and some of today’s biggest recording artists have emerged from SoundCloud; accomplished packages such as “The Girl in the Boston Box” are how self-published novels get past the stigma.

Which is to say that if you enjoy thrillers, “The Girl in the Boston Box” will keep you reading with as much delighted anxiety as most anything you’ll find on a bestseller list right now. And for the bonus of following the action on trips through Harvard Square, stops in Kendall and exploration of Boston brownstones, this is the only box to check.

bullet-gray-small“The Girl in the Boston Box” is expected to be available for order Tuesday from bookstores such as Harvard Book Store and Porter Square Books.