Wounded Prey by Sean Lynch
Wounded Prey by Sean Lynch (Exhibit A, 2013) manages to combine two firsts in one package. As I mentioned in another review, Angry Robot has been spinning off new imprints. This is my first look at Exhibit A. It also happens to be the first novel by this author. Following the adage you should always write about what you know, he splits the action between Iowa where he spent his early years and California where he moved and now lives. In 2012, he retired at the rank of Lieutenant and as Commander of the Detective Division. Uncannily, he has a rookie cop in Iowa called Kevin Kearns and a retired Inspector in San Francisco called Bob Farrell. When a rookie author seems intent on mining his own experience, this can turn out either very bad or very good. Fortunately and possibly because the events described in this book are somewhat removed from his own experiences, this proves to be very good.
As is sometimes the case, I have to begin with a warning. The book deals with a violent and dangerous predator who, given the chance, enjoys killing children and young adults. When an author approaches the task of describing the actions and motivations of such a man, it’s easy to overstep boundaries and either lapse into melodrama or become too graphic in describing what happens. I suppose you could say we’re in the territory occupied by Thomas Harris with the books featuring Dr Hannibal Lecter, and Thomas Tessier with books like Rapture and Secret Strangers, where authors aim to strike a balance between the thriller and a horror novel. To be honest, I’m always uncomfortable when it comes to imposing a specific genre on to a book. To me, genre is nothing more than a marketing tool to tell a bookshop where best to shelve a particular title. An author should always be true to the subject matter and let the prevailing culture determine how far to go into the psychology and practice of sociopathic behaviour. Some might find the descriptions too distressing. Others might criticise the author for turning out something bland in the tradition of Criminal Minds — suitable for eight seasons on primetime television. Taste is highly subjective. So from the outset we see Vernon Slocum snatch a young girl from a school party, shoot a teacher and beat Kearns unconscious. A few page later, we have a trucker notice her body and call the police to the scene. This is the start of what you might call a minor crime wave as our Vet travels across country on his “mission”.
The book is branded as the first in an intended series featuring Farrell and Kearns. Farrell is the older, streetwise detective who’s seen it all before and understands how all the relevant law enforcement systems work. He recognises Slocum’s signature and, for understandable reasons, decides to pursue the man in a private capacity. Yes it’s yet another book about vigilanteism but, in this instance, it’s more forgivable. This is not personal revenge. It’s a desire to right past wrongs and prevent further deaths. So to confirm the identity of his prey, he needs to spring Kearns from informal custody. The FBI have no idea who’s responsible for this killing and, to appease the public who are baying for blood, they’re intending to blame the rookie cop for failing to prevent the abduction. Half the interest in the book is therefore watching Kearns lose his naive view of the world and decide where he stands on moral issues. Perhaps it’s easy to say a trained man with a gun will always be able to kill in self-defence. But how does he reconcile his oath as a law-enforcement officer to uphold the law and protect the public, with the increasingly obvious need to do something to prevent Slocum from continuing to kill? The answers to this and similar questions arise naturally as the plot unfolds. Although there are elements of convenience in the way it eventually plays out, I have the sense both Farrell and Kearns come out of it as well as can be expected in moral terms.
Thematically, the book features the stereotypical antagonism between the police and the FBI. Indeed, at every point in the book, the senior FBI officers are cast as not very bright, inherently unpleasant and obstructive. Rightly or wrongly, we’re expected to cheer whenever our dynamic duo and their support team member manage to scam or beat up one of the Feebs. We’re also to see considerable flimflam action with Farrell exploiting the gullibility of those who have what he wants. I’m always surprised that creative writers make the average person such a sucker or someone so easily bullied into compliance by apparent authority figures. Perhaps this is a symptom of my own naive faith in human intelligence. Anyway, no matter how credible the salesmanship of Farrell, there’s good chemistry between the pair and I’m interested to see whether the next book can maintain this standard. This plot is all in the heat of the moment and we’re bowled along with relentless pace until the prey is cornered. It will be different in the next book as they put up their shingle as PIs.
I have only one minor worry which is aimed not at the author but at whoever edited the book which I have read as an ARC. There are two or three short passages of recapitulation which are annoyingly redundant. Hopefully these have been removed in the retail version. Other than this, Wounded Prey is a genuinely exciting thriller which contrives to avoid the more obvious pitfalls inherent in portraying the potentially explicit subject matter. You should give this a try.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.