Michael Collins is far more than a thriller writer, "The thinking man's John Grisham," as he's misleadingly labelled on the jacket. He's an astute chronicler of small-town dead-end lives, an Irish emigré whose commentaries on American mores and motivations put him on the Booker shortlist for 2000.
Lost Souls, his fifth novel, brilliantly illuminates American obsessions such as the automobile and sports celebrities. The unctuous town mayor, a used-car salesman who enjoys posing as a benefactor, proclaims the car a "celebration of freedom". But a tragic accident gives the lie to his triumphalism.
On Halloween night three-year-old Sarah Kendall is discovered dead in a pile of leaves by the roadside, dressed in an angel's costume. Lawrence, the policeman who finds her, is pining for his own son, Eddy, from whom he is denied access. Deep in debt and behind with child support payments, he's a good man who made some serious mistakes and looks like ending a loser, aged 45 in a dreary town outside Chicago. Although everyone conspires against him, he remains his own worst enemy. Yet we sympathise with his failings, born of loneliness and despair. He's also sliding into an apparently doomed relationship with Lois, the police station despatcher.
Persuaded to act against his better judgement, Lawrence allows himself to be ensnared by the mayor's promise of the chief of police job. He's aware of his own culpability as he, the mayor and the current chief plot to conceal the fact that the local football hero, Kyle Johnson, is the prime suspect in Sarah's killing. However, the cover-up involves more sinister deceptions.
Kyle is a gridiron Adonis whose quarterbacking genius has led his high-school team to within sight of the state championship. He must therefore play in Saturday's big game. The town may be selling its soul for a championship but, as Lawrence observes, "people hang on to whatever they can in a place like this". The place is a community whose centre is no longer the church or the city hall but the high school gym. Pep rallies replace religion, politics and education.
Everywhere are the ghosts of the great industrial era: abandoned warehouses and gutted factories among malls, fast-food strips and rivers of neon. The bleak midwestern winter in which "this High Hicksville tragedy" is set inspires Collins's most poetic writing. He carefully assembles the elements of his mesmerising tale in a style that is low-key and unpretentious, but vivid with psychological insights and marvellous descriptive passages.
The novel's second half sets a breakneck pace. Murders multiply as Lawrence narrowly escapes incineration before his arrest for fraud and arson. Meanwhile, his affair with Lois survives despite mutual mistrust. A plethora of unmaskings and shock-horrors precede a bizarre dénouement that verges on farce.
Such is the mayhem that Sarah's fate is nearly forgotten until the final pages, when this lost child whom we never meet proves to be the very source of the maelstrom. The images of encroaching darkness suggest America's own lost soul.