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An unlikely would-be amateur detective is on the case in Will Leitch’s ‘How Lucky’

“My life is not a thriller,” declares Daniel, the handicapped 26-year-old narrator of Will Leitch’s debut novel “How Lucky” (Harper, 304 pp., ★★ out of four), a mash-up of “Rear Window” and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” for the digital age, with the added dimension of a narrator in a wheelchair who largely cannot move or speak on his own.

Daniel has SMA, a progressive disease akin to ALS, which strikes babies and takes years to reach its fatal fruition. The use of his left hand is about all he has left when we meet him. He can “move around a keyboard” and “hold a spoon” and use a joystick to operate his wheelchair but otherwise requires around-the-clock-care to ensure he does not drown on his own mucous.

And yet he has, by all accounts, a lucky life. He’s got a good friend, Travis, who comes over to talk trash. He works for an airline as a living customer service bot on Twitter, which seems to give him joy. He lives in the cozy college town of Athens, Georgia, where he can watch life’s rich pageant from his front porch. It’s a simple life that, we learn, can end at almost any point for Daniel, his death always a cough away.

Will Leitch’s debut novel "How Lucky." (Photo: Harper)

Leitch does a terrific job embodying Daniel – his humor, his wisdom, his pettiness, his physical space – so that when he witnesses a young woman named Ai-Chin being abducted, we are immediately invested. How will Daniel ever solve this crime?

And that’s where “How Lucky” crumbles under its own ambition. Because while Daniel’s life isn’t thrilling, unfortunately neither is Leitch’s book.  

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Every amateur detective novel has a simple subtextual premise: The police have failed and only this person, with their special skills, can solve the crime. The problem is that Daniel’s special skills are he’s home and he’s online. So when the cops don’t immediately find the missing woman, he posts a message on Reddit that says he witnessed the kidnapping and that kicks off an improbable email cat-and-mouse with the kidnapper – or is it someone pretending to be the kidnapper?

Here the novel should begin to pick up speed – the game is afoot! – but instead it lurches. Leitch obfuscates drama with chapters of backstory on everything from the history of Athens to Daniel’s childhood friendship with Travis, and at absolutely the wrong time, a long discourse on Daniel’s mother’s fight with cancer, before returning to the laborious messages, which hit on every known cliche in the psychopath handbook. “I think we’re not so different,” the possible kidnapper even writes… and then he writes it again, in slightly different ways, about a dozen more times.

Author Will Leitch. (Photo: Dylan Blue Photography)

“How Lucky” becomes almost epistolary in its form the longer it progresses, which makes it claustrophobic and passive, and is further hampered by Leitch using direct address throughout, giving the narrative a chummy feel that waters down nearly every dramatic moment. If the narrator feels free to chat with us, the odds are fair he’s going to make it through the most drastic near-death event, including the remarkably absurd climax, which strains both believability and plausibility – imagine Encyclopedia Brown tying up a case up with the help of some flash-bang grenades and America’s most inept police force – but readers will be long past caring at that point. More troubling, we know no more about the missing woman, Ai-Chin, on page 300 than we did on page one. She is a conceit, not a character.

It’s a shame, really, because Leitch has created an indelible character in Daniel, a hero we want desperately to root for, a would-be amateur detective who could teach us about the value of human life along the way, if only he got a decent case to solve.

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