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Purgatory Chasm: A Mystery (A Conway Sax Mystery) Hardcover – May 10, 2011

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Editorial Reviews


Conway Sax is a has-been racing driver, an ace auto mechanic, a recovering alcoholic and a refreshing new character solving hardcore crimes….Non-racing and non-car fans will appreciate [Ulfelder's] hero as well as his crisp plotting, hard-boiled style and realistic dialogue. In his debut novel, Ulfelder deftly solves a mystery, and explores how family ties are established and what they mean. (Associated Press)

The redemption that every flawed person tries to find in life enhances the complex plot that percolates in former journalist Steve Ulfelder's exciting mystery fiction debut. And Purgatory Chasm is certainly loaded with myriad flawed characters and their avenues to redemption, starting with Conway Sax… Purgatory Chasm moves at a brisk clip as Ulfelder smoothly steers his plot from one hairpin twist to the next. Ulfelder… adds just enough automobiles lore to spice Purgatory Chasm, but not overwhelm it. Ulfelder brings a gritty, uncompromising view to his hard-boiled debut. At the same time, the author makes Conway both tough and vulnerable, a man who has made too many mistakes in his life and, unfortunately, will make even more. Purgatory Chasm is a superb beginning for an author who shows much promise. (South Florida Sun-Sentinel)

Ulfelder's debut combines elements of the thriller with tales of tangled families. Violence runs through the novel, but Ulfelder tempers it with compassion -- and evocative prose. Purgatory Chasm may be hardboiled, but it's heart-wrenching, too. (Richmond Times-Dispatch)

Working throughout is the edgy, self-effacing voice of a flawed main character, a good guy with plenty of baggage who's just trying stay alive and to get it right this time. (The Boston Globe)

A surprising and satifying hard-boiled crime novel, the author's first, and both grimly realistic and exciting… If the author can sustain this level of invention and vivid writing, this is a great career a-borning. (The Sullivan County Democrat)

A gritty razor sharp new voice in crime fiction. (The Keene Sentinel)

Ulfelder couples precise, evocative prose with an original private investigator in his compelling hard-boiled debut…. Ulfelder smoothly navigates the many plot twists, and effortlessly introduces wrinkles in his protagonist's backstory that enhance the character. Fans of Michael Koryta's PI crime novels will find a lot to like. (Publishers Weekly, starred review)

Conway is one of those tough but tender, emotionally damaged protagonists that calls out to certain mystery readers.... Ulfelder's first novel gets a thumbs up. (Booklist)

A promising debut… with one of the funniest, punchiest, most memorable -- and for this paper unprintable--first sentences in recent murder mysteries. (MetroWest Daily News)

Ulfelder's debut grabs you from its wryly hilarious opening line and keeps going full throttle till the finale. His characters are deep and realistically rendered - sometimes painfully so - and the broken family dynamics are right on the money. Ulfelder writes so well that even non-NASCAR fanatics will get something out of the car talk and racing scenes. Can't wait for book two! (RT Book Reviews, Top pick, 4 ½ stars)

This outstanding debut by a former journalist and racing enthusiast is gritty and fast-paced, with an intriguing plot and believable characters. Ulfelder has introduced a solid new protagonist, and the many race car anecdotes add to the novel's allure. It will appeal strongly to readers of Loren D. Estleman and Ross MacDonald and those who enjoy hard-boiled detective mysteries. (Library Journal, starred review)

The tough, working class setting and the no-nonsense, wisecrack-free tone will get under your fingernails, and fans of George Pelecanos will dig the eye for workingman, hands-on detail that race car driver and first-time novelist Ulfelder exhibits--whether Conway is drywalling a house, stumbling through a murder investigation, or simply trying to do the right thing, there's a veracity and empathy that shows the author himself isn't afraid to get his hands dirty; or apply a little elbow grease when it comes to plotting… More, please. (Mystery Scene)

Fathers and sons, American style…. The protagonist is… strong, engaging and fully realized… A promising debut. (Kirkus)

If Chuck Norris had a problem, he'd call Conway Sax. (

[A] superlative debut… one of the best mystery debuts I've read in a long time. Steve Ulfelder is definitely a new voice to be heard in the noir genre. Unlike most bloody, shoot-'em-up crime dramas, Purgatory Chasm is a great whodunit.…[It's] a very unique mystery with memorable characters and a gripping, whodunit plot that involves a serial killer. On several occasions, I became teary eyed, especially when reading about the crushed hopes and dreams of some of the novel's tragic characters. The ending itself was quite sad. I won't be able to shake myself free of it for a long time. (

Purgatory Chasm is one of those books I had a hard time putting down. It grabbed me with the first line and I had to keep reading to find out what kind of trouble Conway was going to get into next. And there was plenty of trouble. There were loads of twists and turns and an ending I didn't see coming. I thought about it long after I finished the book. Every character was well-drawn and compelling. Conway is a guy you just have to root for. His friend, Randall--an Iraq war veteran with a prosthetic leg--is Conway's conscience and tries to keep him on the straight and narrow. Charlene is Conway's on-and-off girlfriend. She's been disappointed by him several times, but somehow their relationship survives. I especially liked the relationship between Charlene's daughter and Conway. Even minor characters who only make one-time appearances are interesting. If you like P.I. novels with lots of action, compelling characters, and an ending that will blow you away, Purgatory Chasm is definitely a book you need to pick up. (

Sax is a very likable character, even if he feels obligated to sometimes do questionable things for the Barnburners to repay them for saving his life... Ulfelder writes some devastating scenes, made more so because of things that aren't said. We hurt more for Sax because he's not openly sentimental; we fill in the blanks when he doesn't show us his feelings. But show Ulfelder does, instead of telling, and for that I'm glad I came along for the ride. (

Genuine characters and intense action--a serious crime novel with serious edge. (Patrick Lee, New York Times bestselling author of The Breach)

The story is suspenseful and original, the characters are well-drawn, and the dialogue crackles. The fact is, Steve Ulfelder can really write, and Purgatory Chasm is a remarkably strong debut. I look forward to his next book. (Bruce DeSilva, Edgar Award-winning author of Rogue Island)

Purgatory Chasm grabs you at the gate and doesn't let go, careening through a top-notch whodunit to an ending you don't see coming. A debut this good makes you wonder what Ulfelder's holding back for the next race. (Sophie Littlefield, Edgar Award-nominated author of A Bad Day for Sorry)

Holds a hot, ominous idle just until Ulfelder engages gears and hits the gas, pinning you back against the seat, hopeless to leave before the end of the ride. One of those rare debuts that leaves you immediately eager to see what is next. (Michael Koryta, award-winning author of The Silent Hour and The Cypress House)

A thrilling new talent in crime fiction, Steve Ulfelder has written a debut that crackles with hard-boiled wit and white-knuckled action. Conway Sax will stay with you long after the final page releases you from its grip. (Norb Vonnegut, author of The Gods of Greenwich)

Ulfelder's voice makes the tale as powerful and true as rocketing down the back straight at Martinsville Speedway. He's given us living proof that scars are sometimes the only legacy we can pass down from one generation to the next. (Louise Ure, Shamus Award winning author of Liar's Anonymous)

A highly enjoyable journey of one man's quest to hold his end of the bargain - with the help of a few friends. The narrative is slick and Purgatory Chasm is a very quick read, one thing it certainly did was hold my attention effortlessly throughout. (

If you enjoy novels about bad boy anti-heroes, Purgatory Chasm is well-written, richly plotted and a lot of fun. Recommended. (

About the Author

Steve Ulfelder is an amateur race driver and co-owner of Flatout Motorsports, a company that builds race cars. He was a business and technology journalist for 20 years. In addition to trade and automotive magazines, he wrote for the Boston Globe, Boston magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, and many others. Purgatory Chasm is his first novel.

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Product Details

  • Series: A Conway Sax Mystery (Book 1)
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Minotaur Books; First Edition edition (May 10, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312672926
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312672928
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.1 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,396,577 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

A former journalist, Steve Ulfelder is now co-owner of Flatout Motorsports, a company that builds and services race cars, and an amateur race driver. He graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University and lives in Massachusetts with his family.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Ulfelder's hook for this rousing tale of murder and mayhem is the unconditional support among members of a long-time sobriety group of 12-step folks who call themselves "the Barnburners". Most exclusive is the "meeting-after-the-meeting", where a select group helps one another whenever a request for aid is made. Consequently, when Tander Phigg, a fellow Barnburner, asks for Conway Sax's help in retrieving his classic Mercedes from a body shop in Rourke, New Hampshire, Sax is inclined to make inquiries on Phigg's behalf. An auto mechanic with a short, but memorable history with the NASCAR circuit, Sax did a bit for manslaughter, lost some years to the oblivion of alcohol and knows his way around both sides of the law. Essentially a sober bad boy, complete with commitment phobia and a very patient girlfriend, Conway doesn't take it lightly when he is rewarded for his efforts with a knock-out blow to the head at Motorenwerks.

Conway's next encounter with Tander is in a run-down shack on Phigg's undeveloped property that belies a family history of wealth, leaving Sax with a disturbing puzzle and no easy solution. No matter. Ulfelder writes with a sharp wit and the kind of heady abandon found in some of the best contemporary fiction, a bit James Lee Burke, a bit Lee Smith, but with his own particular voice. Once begun, the plot is propelled form one insane incident to another, Conway's best intentions slipping away as a simple favor becomes more complex, the cast more devious and the stakes far in excess of expectations in doing a favor for a fellow Barnburner. There are sympathetic characters- notably Phigg's son, Trey- Conway's multitude of sober friends, his girlfriend, even remnants of Tander Phigg's glory days as a photographer in New York in the 60s.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Harriet Klausner #1 HALL OF FAME on May 10, 2011
Format: Hardcover
In Framingham, Massachusetts auto mechanic Conway Sax detests insufferable Tander Phigg, but the man belongs to the Alcoholics Anonymous Barnburner group. The Barnburners saved his life by sobering him up so Conway vowed to repay them whenever he can.

Thus when the pig Phigg asks Conway to retrieve his 1980 Mercedes from New Hampshire Das Motorenwerk garage that has possessed his vintage auto for eighteen months, Sax reluctantly agrees. However, the seemingly simple request turns convoluted when someone at the garage knocks him out and later he learns someone killed Tander. The police suspect Sax of the murder as he is an ex con who has been fingered for being the last person seen with the deceased. Conway has two missions to resolve: first prove his innocence and second get the vehicle.

Loaded with twists and spins, Purgatory Chasm is an exciting action-packed amateur sleuth mystery starring a fascinating flawed individual. Conway makes the tale work as a person in trouble who investigates the murder while also planning to repo the car. His past is nicely interwoven into the strong plot so that readers understand why he feels obligated to the Barnburner group.

Harriet Klausner
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By M. Introne on June 10, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
If you're looking for a fun summer read, love mysteries, and have an affinity for car guys - you'll love Purgatory Chasm. Great twists keep you on your toes and guessing every step of the way. Non-stop action, and characters that are charming, in their dirt-under-the-nails kinda way. Very pleased, and highly recommend the book. Great job Mr. Ulfelder!
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Ray Salemi on May 20, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
When Conway Sax fixes your truck it stays fixed. When he builds a house it stays built. And, when he says he'll get your car back from a disreputable mechanic, by God, he gets that car.

Reminiscent of Spenser and Crash Davis before him, Conway Sax is the kind of man who knows who he is, knows how to do a job right, and does what he say's he'll do. He's the kind of man who has a story to tell, but doesn't need to hear himself talk.

Purgatory Chasm is the perfect book for a guy like Conway Sax, because like Sax, Steve Ufelder is a master craftsman. The story is solidly built and lovingly finished. There are no loose ends, no murky motivations, and no flabby scenes. Every piece fits together to create a solid mystery that will withstand the test of time.

Purgatory Chasm is a job well done.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Darcia Helle VINE VOICE on May 29, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
Purgatory Chasm starts off with tremendous promise. The writing is smooth, with lots of well written dialogue that moves the story forward while also giving us a great feel for the characters. Ulfelder's style is quick and uncluttered, immersing us in the story as the suspense builds.

Unfortunately, it all fell apart for me early on. I didn't find the plot or the characters' behavior believable.

Some highlights:

- Conway Sax is street smart, independent, on parole, jobless, and inexplicably gets total financial support from his girlfriend while he does whatever he wants instead of looking for a job.

- Said girlfriend, an independent, opinionated, single mother, is ridiculously tolerant of Sax's childish and selfish behavior, gives him the cold shoulder when he isn't around enough, but never once suggests he grow up and support himself.

- Never once do we learn where the girlfriend is getting enough money to support herself and her daughter, and also support her boyfriend and his grand adventures.

- Sax has blind dedication to a secret group within the AA that apparently extends beyond death and also apparently does not require any other member of this same group to help in any way.

- Sax not only helps his AA friend, but also, for reasons unknown, risks his life to help two people who'd knocked him unconscious and flattened his tires.

- A family who didn't know Sax at all instantly trusts him and moves into his home.

- Sax is knee-deep in murder, has all sorts of leads and evidence, but lies to the cops and conceals most of what he finds.

- All cops are incompetent.

This story does have some high points. The dialogue felt genuine and offered some comic relief around the crime. The first person narration worked well for both the story and the Sax's character. But the execution here just didn't work for me.
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