Though ostensibly a crime novel—complete with shootouts, plot twists, and recriminations—Derek Nikitas’ The Long Division is more a work of literary fiction than a genre exercise. Nikitas shows an interest in language and form that outpaces most other authors who write about murder, and it manifests in passages that express the characters’ internal lives in terms of what they see around them. The Long Division is never hard to follow—and it’s peppered with memorable descriptions, as when Nikitas has one character look at a tray of pizza rolls and see “two dozen freezer-burned thumbs”—but Nikitas does deploy a few gimmicks to create a sense of urgency and dislocation. Chief among them? Beginning and ending chapters and sub-chapters with unfinished sentences, and effectively liberating readers from lengthy setup in order to put more emphasis on action.
Nikitas also conveys the concerns, tendencies, and histories of a diverse cast of characters with minimal fuss. The Long Division follows the interwoven fates of three parents, two kids, and one wild card. The book opens with a depressed Atlanta maid stealing $5,000 from a client and fleeing to North Carolina to see the son she put up for adoption 15 years ago, a son who’s struggling with his homosexuality. Meanwhile, in rural New York, a morally compromised deputy is dealing with his cancer-ridden wife, his headstrong college-age daughter, and the pursuit of an emotionally troubled math whiz who killed two young people in a drug den. While putting these desperate people through their paces, Nikitas examines where and how they live, and how it all feeds their overwhelming feelings of shame.
The connections between the novel’s characters are revealed piece by piece, but they really don’t need to be. At times, Nikitas is a little too beholden to the clichés of these kinds of stories, as he builds to violence and shocking turns that come off as a little pat. The Long Division is much better—superior, even—when Nikitas is getting inside each character’s paranoia, exploring how varying degrees of guilt lead them to believe that everyone can see how pathetic they are. That core of emotional understanding is what makes Nikitas a special kind of crime writer. Maybe next time out, he’ll have the confidence to leave the guns holstered.