Willis Gidney

Created by Thomas Kaufman

It took me quite a while to warm to WILLIS GIDNEY, the “half-assed” young, streetwise DC private eye/scam artist hero of Drink the Tea (2010), an occasionally frustrating but ultimately promising debut, the winner of the 2011 St. Martin’s Press/Private Eye Writers of America Best First Novel Contest.

Initially, I wasn’t even sure if I liked Gidney all that much – he seemed vaguely defined, inexplicably abrasive and obnoxious at times, not particularly intelligent and too cute by half, more amusing to himself than to readers. And then somewhere along the way, about the time he takes it upon himself to apologize to a young waitress for someone else’s rudeness, I realized that — despite my reservations — I was beginning to like the jerk, or at least wonder what his deal was.

The answer, it turns out, is the real mystery at the heart of this novel; not the ostensible case which involves Willis tracking the long-lost daughter of his friend, Steps Jackson, a jazz musician, and soon has the former street kid going up against a powerful congressman, a multi-national conspiracy and a frightened woman desperate to escape her own dark past. Not that that case isn’t without its own charms, but it’s the revelation of Willis’ painful childhood of abuse and neglect, jostled between endless foster homes, the street and an over-burdened and incompetent child welfare system that provides the real meat here. In fact, by the time we (and Willis) come to terms with his past, the book is almost over – bringing not the sense of closure that Kaufman might have hoped for, but anticipation for what he (and Willis) will do next.

Because if there’s a book that deserves a sequel, it’s this one. Kaufman has come up with a bold and original new detective, and he’s only scratched the surface. At the time I originally wrote this review, I ended it with “More, please.”

Apparently my request was granted, but the sequel, Steal the Show (2011), which took the same themes as Drink the Tea but ramped them up (Willis discovers an abandoned baby girl and keeps her), fell between the cracks, garnering rave reviews and selling squat. It never even made it into paperback. There were a couple of short stories, also well received, but a third novel, Face the Music, hasn’t seen the light of day so far.

Damn it. This had the potential to be a truly great series.


Since graduating from the University of Southern California with an MFA in Film Production, Thomas Kaufman has worked as a directed and/or shot documentaries and commercial and fiction film for National Geographic, the Discovery Channel, the British Broadcasting Corporation, WGBH and WNET. He has twice won the Gordon Parks Award for Cinematography, as well as an Emmy for See What I’m Saying, a documentary about deaf children.


  • “Thomas Kaufman is a welcome new voice in Washington, D.C. crime fiction.”
    — George Pelecanos
  • “Kaufman pulls off a taut, compelling tale of violence and corruption.”
    — Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)
  • “A welcome departure from the mysterious and misunderstood private eye, Gidney is a man to follow.”
    — Robert Randisi



  • “A Place for Sully” (2013, Erased and Other Stories)
  • “The Parallax Judgement” (2013, Erased and Other Stories)


  • Erased and Other Stories (2013) |  Kindle it!
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. A version of this entry was published in Mystery Scene. Used with permission.

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