The Disposables by David Putnam
Life is considered “safe” when everything happening around you is predictable. Even when some of the possibilities represent a source of danger, the very fact you are aware of them means you can take appropriate evasive action. Insecurity comes from any lack of foresight. When you don’t know what dangers may be lurking or precisely when known dangers may manifest themselves, anxiety sets in and, if that’s not controlled, it can lead to hypervigilance and panic. It’s the same when it comes to reading a book which is published under the banner of thriller. If it’s easy to predict from one page to the next exactly what will happen, the “safe” plot rapidly grows boring and any thrills there might otherwise have been evaporate. The mark of a good thriller comes from some spark of originality.
At this point, we have to be honest. In practical terms, it’s very difficult to come up with a “new” plot. With several thousand increasingly sophisticated thrillers published each year over the last fifty and more years, the ingenuity of authors has been expended in the endless search for a different way of telling the same basic story. So we can’t expect novelty when it comes to the major plot elements. The protagonist will come under threat. Over the course of the book, the threats will become more severe until, in a major confrontation, there’s conflict resolution and the protagonist reaches some kind of accommodation with the world.
So here comes The Disposables by David Putnam (Oceanview Publishing, 2014). In a neutral voice, I’ll tell you this is a first novel. Our protagonist is Bruno Johnson. He used to be a tough cop who would dispense street justice and keep the streets safe by being more scary than gang leaders. This led to him being recruited into the elite Violent Crime Task Force. At this point, I’ll point to the ironic ambiguity in the name of this squad. Individually and collectively, these were violent officers who would stop at nothing to bring crime under control. For a while, Bruno was partnered with Robby Wicks. This worked well until Bruno was caught crossing a line and ended up doing time. He’s now out on parole, but planning to make a run for it.
Bruno and his current girlfriend, Marie, have been offering a safe house to abused children. They are the disposables of the title because the court system has little or no time to investigate claims of ill-treatment. Children are simply returned to the parent with custody. One of those liberated from the system was the son of an important man in Korea. He’s been pressuring the State Department and, in turn, the FBI has been tasked with recovering the boy. With Bruno in the crosshairs, he agrees to stage a robbery to raise enough cash to fund a quiet departure from American shores with the children. At first, everything seems to be going well but, when Robby Wicks appears looking for help to track down a serial killer, the situation rapidly grows complicated and the opportunity to slip away seems to be closing.
There have been so many books, television series and films exploiting the deficiencies of the Social Services. This means the idea of a tough cop rescuing the children suffering the worst abuse is hardly original. Providing a safe house or some form of underground railroad continues along familiar lines. In this version, there are also a number of classic stereotypes. Marie is a nurse who has seen the abuse first-hand in the ER and prefers intervention. We also meet a prostitute with a heart of gold, drug-pushers and other lowlife characters, hard-nosed cops, and so on. But two elements rescue this novel from the edge of the abyss of failure. The first is the way the familiar plot elements are put together. Although the plot is slightly busy, it maintains a good pace and provides just enough manipulation of expectation to keep the pages turning. For the record, there’s enough inside information about the working of the police force to have some of the content bleeding into the subgenre of police procedural. The second redeeming feature is the crispness of the prose. This author strikes a nice balance between telling and showing. Too often first novelists fall into the trap of believing we readers need more information. This gets on with the job in hand with good economy and a clear eye for detail. All of which leaves me with very positive feelings about The Disposables. It’s a very readable thriller that knows where it’s going and makes sure you’re still reading until it gets there.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.