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River of Glass by Jaden Terrell

November 3, 2014 Leave a comment

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Over the last two years, I’ve reviewed a few mystery novels with an agenda to deal with issues of contemporary importance. This has included the abnormally high murder rate in some Mexican towns, people trafficking, and so on. It may be significant that many of these novels dealing with the darker side of human nature are Scandinavian. The literal darkness that descends in the northern latitudes during their longer winters often seems to be matched by a fascination with human depravity in its various forms. This experience has led me, on some occasions, to feel somewhat manipulated. It’s not exactly that I’m beginning to suffer compassion fatigue. I haven’t yet lost my sense of the horror and real injustice suffered by the victims of these crimes. I’ve simply found the themes overly dominant, feeling as if these crimes are themselves being presented as a form of entertainment as we watch the not unnaturally depressed detectives follow the clues to trap the killers and imprison the abusers.

Thematically, River of Glass by Jaden Terrell (Permanent Press, 2014) is dealing with people trafficking. A number of young women have been induced to travel to America from Asia only to find themselves trapped in a living hell where they are taught to be submissive and then sold on to rich johns. All this comes to Jared McKean courtesy of a body in the dumpster at the back of the building where he has his office. The next day an Asian woman is waiting outside his office. She claims to be his half-sister. Backed up by a number of photographs, she explains his father went through a form of local marriage when he was serving in Vietnam. They were expecting him to go back after the war, but he never did. Now her daughter has gone missing in America. She had insisted on coming to find her grandfather. Once he overcomes his scepticism, this sets Jared off on a search for his niece.

Jared (Beth) Terrell

Jared (Beth) Terrell

Under normal circumstances, he would call on the help of his old friend in the local police force. But he’s somewhat distracted. This leaves his main point of contact the temperamental Malone who has yet to warm up to Jared’s approach to investigating crime. Unfortunately, although he begins to make progress thanks to all his friends, the local law enforcement focus shifts to investigate the activities of a bomber who claims to be exterminating people who have shown themselves to be enemies of justice. This leaves Jared and his half-sister in the driving seat of the investigation without official support.

Although we have scenes embedded in the broad narrative explaining what’s happening to those kept imprisoned, the reader’s eye is kept squarely on the characters of those in pursuit. Since Jared’s disabled son goes through a health crisis, the emotional complexities of his life are laid bare. At a time when he wants and needs to be there for his son, he discovers he has another previously unsuspected part of the family to worry about. In the end the compromises he makes persuade his half-sister into greater recklessness than is prudent. It’s at this point we discover the significance of the book’s title which is appropriately vicious.

What makes this book so satisfying is the balance between the awfulness of the treatment endured by those in captivity, and the determination of those in pursuit to find out who’s responsible. The result is a proper context for the darkness which offers depth and some affirmation for the essential resilience of the human spirit. Those who endure, find some redemption. Those who fight for what’s right find themselves the victim of their own naïveté, but nevertheless can still draw enough strength to continue when the truth emerges. This makes River of Glass one of the best thrillers of the year so far. It’s powerful without overwhelming the sense of compassion we should all feel for those victimised in this way. I strongly recommend this book.

For a review of the first two books in the series, see:
A Cup Full of Midnight
Racing the Devil.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

A Cup Full of Midnight by Jaden Terrell

September 1, 2014 2 comments

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Having had some issues with the narrative pacing of the first in the series, I metaphorically pick up a digital copy of A Cup Full of Midnight by Jaden Terrell (Permanent Press, 2012) featuring ex-cop and now PI Jared McKean. This continues in the best raditions of a serial with characters who were slightly less prominent in the first book, now stepping into the limelight. This time, the focus of attention is Josh, our hero’s nephew. Much to the despair (if not anger of his father), the young sprog comes out as gay and, to add insult to injury, becomes involved with the Goth scene. Except, even this version of the Goth scene is tainted with darker colours as he moves into the world of vampires, witches and others who claim some kind of supernatural status or powers. This leads to him becoming involved with a manipulative man who claims to be a real vampire. A short while after the young man loses his appeal, said vampire is killed in what seems to have been a ritualistic way. Except it’s not at all clear what the ritual might have been, so mixed up is all the symbology. What’s particularly clear is the depth of anger in the killing. Normally, this would not be a problem, but the sprog and a young woman were in the neighbourhood about the time and, worse, the young girl makes a generalised confession that she was responsible for the death. When two less than caring police officers come to interview the sprog, they frighten him and he attempts suicide. This inspires McKean to investigate. He may have thought the man deserved to die for abusing minors, but the suggestion his nephew might have had something to do with it passes a red line.

Jared (Beth) Terrell

Jared (Beth) Terrell

So this book adheres more closely to the optimal PI narrative pacing model. We have a gentle introduction to the problem and then our PI sets off to investigate. The first hurdle he meets is the number of people the victim had angered in his relatively short lifetime. It was probably something he worked at consciously, seeing how far he could push a real talent for upsetting others. One person describes the victim as a man who’d dipped into the Great Darkness and scooped out a cup full of midnight. So whether it was others in the Goth scene, or the gay scene, or the parents of the young kids he slept with, or the locals in the neighborhood where he lived, there were probably a lot of people waiting in line for their chance to kill him. Anyway, after doing the first round of talking with all the possibles, he knows he’s on the right track because someone with supernatural powers materialises a rattlesnake in his truck in that cold interstitial period before Christmas becomes New Year.

Very much as the first book, this is primarily interested in relationships. You may think you know people, but even those you’ve known for years can surprise you. Take your best friend who’s dying of AIDS. He has a steady boyfriend but he’s prepared to sacrifice that relationship to help an ex-boyfriend who’s that much closer to death. It’s all about priorities and the sacrifices you’re prepared to take to help others or just fit in with the crowd. That’s why Josh is something of an enigma. This is a boy McKean has known from birth, except just how well does he know him? It’s not just a simple matter of him running with the wrong crowd, meeting up with them on a casual basis. He’d been a willing catamite for the victim and who can be entirely sure what he might have done while under that man’s influence. The result as described here is full of resolutions (it’s almost New Year, after all). Some of these endings are tragic, others merely sad. For those left standing, life goes on for now but little in life is ever certain. A traffic accident or some other unexpected event could end it tomorrow. The young never have enough experience to understand how short their lives are. The older people have enough experience to be able to live with the knowledge they will die one day (some sooner than others).

A Cup Full of Midnight turns out to be something of a tour-de-force. The pacing is just right and, more importantly, the people ring true. No matter whether we’re dealing with the more extreme or marginalised members of society, or those whose middle class status is supposed to make them more law-abiding and less dangerous, everyone reacts in the moment. It’s the fallibility of humanity that everyone can be tempted or manipulated into doing the wrong thing. All it takes is someone with sufficient insight and determination to cause chaos, and the world can fall apart. Then it takes someone like McKean to help stick plaster on the wounds and hope people can recover. If that means, sometimes, he has to look the other way, that’s a price worth paying to protect the weak and vulnerable from doing further damage to themselves. Protect and serve doesn’t just apply to police officers. It also applies to PIs and concerned citizens like McKean. Overall, this is an impressive character study and recommended.

For reviews of two other books in the series, see:
Racing the Devil
River of Glass.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Racing the Devil by Jaden Terrell

August 31, 2014 1 comment

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When putting together a PI novel with thriller pretensions, one of the key considerations is narrative pacing. Not to put too fine a point on it, if a reader is expecting action, being slow to introduce it will result in boredom and a switch-off. But equally, having non-stop action can become tedious. Even in the most high-adrenaline adventures, people do take short breathers. So, for example, the James Bond franchise has developed the introductory blast of action lasting five to ten minutes. This captures the attention of viewers by showing a sample of what they can expect when they get to the climax. The plot proper can then begin and slowly escalate up to said climax when all the major stunts are played out. This reflects the general danger that if events are flashing by too quickly, neither viewers nor readers may gain a clear understanding of what’s happening. Of course, cultural anthropologists may suggest Western people with digital inputs are developing very short attention spans and need constant restimulation if they are going to reach the end of the film or book. This may persuade authors to aim for a mini-cliffhanger at the end of every chapter to persuade readers to turn the pages more quickly to resolve their feelings of fear and anxiety. But the dilemma for authors could not be more clearly seen than in Racing the Devil by Jaden Terrell (Permanent Press, 2012).

Jared (Beth) Terrell

Jared (Beth) Terrell

This is the first of the Jared McKean mysteries. He has an eight-year-old son with Down Syndrome, an ex-wife, and an array of very interesting and supportive friends. The opening sixty or so pages of this book flash by with incidents of note occurring on a regular basis. So: goes into pub, meets woman who has been battered and seems in need of protection; has sex with said woman; wakes up to find himself framed for a murder; makes a bad decision, and is arrested; is beaten up in prison; and then has time to draw breath when his friends bail him out. Now he can begin trying to discover who the mastermind is. Yet even at this early stage, there are problems. To take but two examples, he’s fuzzy when he wakes up after being drugged, but that’s no reason to leave his vehicle untouched. Anyone who thinks someone may be framing them should take the chance to search the vehicle to see whether there’s any other evidence left to be found. To walk away is simply idiotic (or perhaps it isn’t, who knows?). It’s also strange, given the victim apparently kept a diary of where she met the fake McKean, that the real deal does not try to prove the negatives, i.e. that he was not present at all those times. Ah well, you don’t read these books for their logic.

So having our hero back on the mean streets, he has to earn enough to pay the bills and investigate who’s set him up. Although we continue to make progress, the pace now drops quite dramatically (as you would expect). So we’re trying to interview the neighbours and then off to see the deceased’s sister for a little horse massage (no, really, all he does is rub the horse). As the investigation proceeds, we get time for friends and, more importantly, family as he meets his newly-pregnant ex and her new husband on the occasion of his son’s eighth birthday. Indeed, one of the features of this book is the time devoted to exploring this PI’s psychology through the extended backstory that emerges. This makes the book slightly nonstandard. In the conventional PI novel, our noirish protagonist gets out there to investigate. He gets hit a few times, and hands out a beating when it’s deserved or in self-defence. There’s at least one dame that he falls for but, more often than not, she proves unsuitable for one reason or another. This leaves him alone at the end of the book. But Jared McKean is instinctively both a loyal friend and a “family man”. Under normal circumstances, this would mean he lives a suburban life with wife and children. Except his life has not been kind to him. He was married and they have a disabled son whom they both continue to love. He currently shares accommodation with a gay man, but their relationship is entirely platonic. Our hero is straight, but a strong friend. In other words, this hero can only be understood by watching the way in which his relationships ebb and flow. This makes the book distinctly more interesting to read than many more conventional PI novels. Thus, although I might have preferred some of the plot elements to be a little more tightly put together, Racing the Devil proves to be a highly engaging read with a reasonably satisfying explanation of why our hero is the one chosen to be framed, and what the broader motivations are. It will be interesting to see if later books in this series improve on this opening novel.

For reviews of two other books by Jaden Terrell, see:
A Cup Full of Midnight
The River of Glass.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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