Uncle Janice

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Read 05/01/2016-08/01/2016

Rating: 4 stars

I only picked Uncle Janice up because I had to read a book for the Winter Scavenger Hunt challenge where one of the characters shared my first name or my initials. Not many book characters are called Janice that I know of, so I took a chance on the first one to come up on my Google search. Matt Burgess has written a quietly revealing book about life as an undercover narcotics cop. I was completely transported and absorbed by the virtual month I spent with Janice Itwaru and her colleagues. I’m interested to read more by Burgess.

I was expecting a guns’n’glory police procedural set on the mean streets of Queens all wise-cracking action peopled with cops with hearts of gold. Instead I got a portrait of a young woman trying to make sense of her life. Janice Itwaru lives with her mother, who has early onset dementia. Her sister drops in and out of her life, causing havoc. She is estranged from her father, a recovering alcoholic who once beat her mother so badly she was hospitalised. From an early age, Janice wanted to be a spy. Now she works for NYPD Narcotics as an undercover cop, an Uncle. The book charts the last month of her contract, before her fabled elevation to Detective. I found it very revealing about the discrimination against non-white police and against women, both of which are treated as matter of fact by everyone in the 115 Narcotics team. It was also an unglamorous portrayal of life as an undercover officer, and riveting as a result. Alongside the grind of her working life, we’re given an insight into Janice’s personal life. I wanted to be her friend, make her a cup of tea, sit her down and work out how we could make things better. I think she needed a friend. Someone who wasn’t a colleague. Matt Burgess portrays life in Queens with an affectionate honesty, and describes his characters with a quiet skill.

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