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Innocence by Dean Koontz

November 28, 2014 1 comment

KoontzInnocence-2

Spoiler alert. For once I’m going to talk about the plot is some detail so, if you prefer to come to this book without preconceptions, do not read this review.

As a lifelong atheist, I feel I’ve been the victim of some discrimination. Back in the 1970s and 80s, I read most of the novels by Dean Koontz (including those written under the various pseudonyms), but slowly grew tired of the style. Having taken my thirty year sabbatical, I therefore thought it would be interesting to see what the latest book was like. It’s called Innocence (Bantam Books, 2014) and, as you can see, the jacket artwork shows a scene featuring a lonely man in a hoodie, standing in the middle of a snowscape. It creates the impression that this man is a threat of some kind and that, as the book develops, we’ll go through the usual supernatural or horror thriller format of this man preying on the innocent or acting as a vigilante to protect the innocent. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the plot has this figure as a victim who hides himself away from the world. Worse, the final third of the book retrospectively converts the novel into an explicitly Christian and specifically Catholic tale. When the publishers design books with Satanic or other themes which they believe might upset the Christians, they put warning pictures and words on the jacket. There’s nothing on the jacket or blurb to warn atheists that this book is going to be deeply annoying.

So what do we have? This is a first-person narrative of a young man whose entire life has been blighted by his appearance. When he was born, the midwife wanted to kill him. This set the pattern and, had the mother not lived in a desolate house deep in the woods, he would not have survived. When he’s eight-years-old, his mother announces she can no longer stand him and throws him out. As he hides in the woods around the home, he sees his mother commit suicide so you can tell his appearance must be horrendous. At this point, all the options are on the table. He’s physically disabled in a very disturbing way. He’s hairy like a werewolf. He’s the antiChrist. To maintain suspense, there are no clues — our narrator is very unreliable and never describes what he sees in the mirror. When he comes to the city, he’s rescued by another older member of his “kind”. This man teaches him survival strategies and shows him how to live underground. Unfortunately, they are out in the early hours of the morning, having fun, throwing snowballs at each other when they are challenged by two police officers. As the man takes off his mask, the officers are so horrified, they immediately open fire and empty their guns into him. This distraction enables the young man to escape.

Dean Koontz

Dean Koontz

Fortunately, our hero meets a young girl. On the night her father was murdered, she escaped rape when fourteen and has been living a reclusive life while trying to collect evidence that will prove the man guilty of the murder of her father and the attempted sexual assault. They team up and then have one of these intense twenty-four hours in which several people are kidnapped and/or murdered, they go on the run, and the world as we know it ends. It seems the North Koreans are the agents of the Devil and have released a virus that will wipe out most of the human race.

This girl had a father so rich he could leave her with ten places to hide, one outside the city, miles into the countryside. This is very convenient. Further, to maintain security, only one other man is supposed to know where these places are. So she can safely play hide-and-seek around the city. Except how does she maintain all these places? There must be people who go in to clean and tidy, do the washing, and keep the refrigerator stocked with food. It’s not a problem financially. There are millions stashed away in different accounts and trust funds. But it’s the logistics of all these people going in and out of these places and never talking about it. No burglars ever break in. The pipes never freeze and burst during the winters. Then we have her remarkable powers of foresight. She can set up meetings around the city as the snow begins to fall, and she and the narrator will always end up at the right place at the right time for the plot to work. No, sorry, this is just the author moving the characters around so the plot will work out. There’s no suggestion she has supernatural powers of foresight.

And who are this pair? Well, by now you should be thinking they are the “reincarnation” (sorry, wrong religion) of Adam and Eve. Except that’s not quite right. They are pure innocence. In a photograph, they would look perfectly normal. But face-to-face with “ordinary” humans, they radiate a judgmental field in which the humans are immediately aware of all their sins. These poor folk are so horrified by the extent of their wickedness, they immediately set to and aim to kill the innocent one(s). To add insult to injury, there are also angels and devils floating around. In the end, the innocent survive the plague and go off to repopulate the world (a task which may take some time, so God provides manna to avoid the need to eke out dwindling food supplies). This makes Innocence an Armageddon novel with God providing the means for humanity to get a second chance. But this time, they are starting off with those who retain their innocence and are free from original sin. That should give the future generations a better chance of avoiding sin and walking in the path of righteousness. I suppose I have to classify this as Christian fantasy. In less polite mode, I can think of better ways of describing this literalist biblical belief in a God who judges humanity not worth saving from the plague. He just presses the reset button and starts over. So if you are a Christian who wants to see your worldview affirmed, this is the book for you. Otherwise, ignore the author’s name and the jacket design. Innocence is not a horror novel. It’s a waste of your time.

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

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Phantom Limb by Dennis Palumbo

November 16, 2014 3 comments

Phantom-Limb-A-Daniel-Rinaldi-Mystery-908738-2c2ad9425128f8704862

In the medical world, one of the more unusual psychosomatic conditions is phantom limb pain. This is where an amputee continues to “feel” the presence of the missing limb and experiences a range of sensations from a mild itch that can’t be scratched to quite severe pain. This fourth book in the series featuring Daniel Rinaldi is called Phantom Limb by Dennis Palumbo (Poisoned Pen Press, 2014) deals with both the physical and its mirror image psychological condition. One of the characters we meet reenlisted and lost a major part of his leg in Afghanistan. It should not surprise us that one of the many problems he has to confront is pain from the missing limb. However Rinaldi, our protagonist with the hero syndrome, has a comparable problem that just happens to manifest in potentially self-destructive behaviour.

As I write this, I confess to watching the fifth episode of the television series The Flash. Barry Allen is the type of man who runs into burning buildings (or up them) to save people because, (a) he can do so without exposing himself to too much risk, and (b) he wants to help people. Daniel Rinaldi has the latter motivation, but lacks the superpowers to be able to act in this way with impunity. Indeed, in this series, he finds himself attacked in a variety of different ways and nearly always ends up injured to some degree. The question is therefore why he’s driven to embrace danger. The answer is probably that he has, to some extent, given up on life. This loosens his inhibitions and enables him to confront danger to save others, not caring as much as he should whether he survives. This is not bravery and, so far as those around him are concerned, is not something that earns him real praise and recognition. It’s also distinguishable from the acts of a parent or lover who sacrifices him or herself to save a child or partner. That’s a much more immediately emotional reaction when a loved one is threatened. So the ending of this book suggests the basic cause of this behaviour and, more importantly, gives him a way in which he might scratch the itch on his metaphorical phantom limb.

Dennis Palumbo deciding how not to kill off his hero

Dennis Palumbo deciding how not to kill off his hero

As to the plot of this book, it could not be more simple. A woman comes for an appointment with our therapist and confesses her desire to commit suicide as soon as she returns home. Unsure whether he’s talked her out of it, he ushers her to the door at the end of their session. When he opens it, a large man man applies a sap to his head. Some hours later, he surfaces to discover his office overrun by police officers. His celebrity client who’s married to a financially very powerful older man, has called in all the troops. The woman has been kidnapped. This starts us off on a no-holds-barred first third of the book. When we have a chance to draw breath, it looks as though our hero may be out of the firing-line. But, as is required in books like this, the kidnappers have different ideas. It seems they are intent on asking him a few questions.

Once it becomes apparent this has somehow become personal, Rinaldi has to both survive and begin to put together a working hypothesis as to what exactly is going on in this very expensive household that can find five-million dollars in bearer bonds just by picking up a telephone. Has the missing wife really been kidnapped? Why has the nurse looking after the older husband disappeared? What happened to so sour the relationship between the father and his son? The answer to these proves highly entertaining as the plot resolves itself into a fascinating explanation of who’s doing what to whom and why. In the midst of it all comes the one-legged veteran who may have a larger role in all this. Frankly, you can’t ask for more entertainment than this in thriller book form. Phantom Limb is great fun and highly recommended for everyone who enjoys white-knuckle rides with real brainwork involved in the solution of the underlying mystery.

For reviews of other books in this series, see:
Fever Dream
Night Terrors.

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

Bones Never Lie by Kathy Reichs

August 21, 2014 3 comments

Bones Never Lie by Kathy Reichs

Bones Never Lie by Kathy Reichs (Bantam, 2014) is the seventeenth to feature Temperance Brennan. This begins with our hero called into the Cold Case Unit at the Law Enforcement Centre in Charlotte, N.C. The meeting has been triggered by a Vermont detective called Umparo Rodas who has linked one of his cases to others involving Anique Pomperleau. This is a woman who has kidnapped, tortured, and killed young girls. She managed to elude Brennan and the then lead detective, Andrew Ryan, in Monday Mourning (2004). This return to the Pomperleau case is professionally and personally embarrassing to our hero because, having worked with Andrew Ryan in Montreal, they had become occasional lovers. After the death of his teenage daughter from a drug overdose, he has dropped completely out of sight. So Temperance’s first job is to track him down and persuade him to return to civilisation and the investigation of crime. She’s not entirely sure where to start looking but Brennan’s mother, Daisy, turns out to be not only skilled with computers, but also intensely manipulative and potentially dying of cancer. She comes up with a vital piece of information as to where he might be hiding and, courtesy of a flight south of the border, the full cold case team is in play. Meanwhile Erskine “Skinny” Slidell is dealing with a new kidnapping and, of course, the resulting dead body may be tied into the serial killer’s growing list of victims. Once Ryan is back up to speed, they do what they can locally and then fly up to Canada to see if anyone remembers anything that might help then find Pomperleau before she kills again. We then come to one of these very ingenious clues that takes them down to Vermont. I read books for clues like this. They are unlikely ever to work in the real world but, on paper, you are just left with admiration for the author in having created it.

Kathy Reichs

Kathy Reichs

This is a particularly pleasing book in which our hero follows the trail of breadcrumbs using the tools of her trade. Whereas other fictional detectives rely on others to do the forensic work and then apply their own idiosyncratic intelligence to determine whodunnit, Brennan comes as the complete package. She has the knowledge and skills to look at the bones, observe an autopsy, and ask pertinent questions. Yes, she’s less than tactful in this book and shows less patience than usual. We can put that down to the combination of her mother’s “condition”, the reappearance of Ryan, and the general sense of disgust all feel when dealing with cases involving children and young adults. The result is a simple story of medical detective work, told in uncluttered prose which zips us along to the necessary melodramatic confrontation, followed by the debriefing explanations and an epilogue. It’s a very professionally put-together murder mystery involving a serial killer.

This is not to say the book is without flaws. For example, there’s no reason for Brennan’s mother to turn out to be so impressive. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time we’ve met the mother (her father has been dead a long time). I can understand why Kathy Reichs might want to introduce the character. It gives more depth to the general understanding of Brennan. But it would have been sufficient for the plot to stop at the psychological condition and cancer. Police forces can sometimes be allowed to shine when serial killers are threatening local children. I also thought the shooting of one individual was unnecessary. Yes, it does explain why no-one among the usual crew is answering their phone at the critical time, but I’m not convinced it fits comfortably into the Slidell character arc. So, overall, Bones Never Lie is a very good story with lots of interesting medical matters demystified. On balance, I think the flaws relatively minor, leaving this book on my recommended list.

For reviews of other books by Kathy Reichs, see:
The Bones of the Lost
Flash and Bones.

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

Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 5 to 8

July 22, 2014 20 comments

Naniwa_Shonen_Tanteidan-p1

Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) continues the story from the Keigo Higashino novels Naniwa Shonen Tanteida (1988) and its sequel Shinobu Senseni Sayonara (1996). Episode 5 sees the serial shift to a more personal and less investigative mode with our hero, Shinobu Takeuchi (Mikako Tabe), sidelined from the main action by an attack of appendicitis. Naturally both Shuhei Shindo (Teppei Koike) and Yoshihiko Honma (Koji Yamamoto) are dancing attendance in the hospital ward. The only result of their competition is to annoy our patient who prefers peace and quiet. After all, she’s due to go before the school board to see whether her position can be made permanent. That’s why she’s delaying the operation. But, of course, the old woman in the bed opposite behaves in a way that attracts interest. She and her husband run the tobacconist shop in her neighbourhood. They are known as solid and reliable people (and sharp traders). Yet there’s something distinctly odd when her husband comes to deliver a change of clothing. When he returns to the shop that night, he’s tied up and the shop searched. This brings Shuhei Shindo and Susumu Urushizaki (Yasunori Danta) into play, but the old man offers no explanation for this attack and search. The next night, someone breaks into the hospital ward and tries to attack the old woman but, despite the pain, our hero chases him away. One of the schoolboys in the junior detectives’ class is also acting oddly and the detectives are on the job to find out what’s wrong. In the end, they follow him to a police station where he drops off some banknotes. In due course these are shown to be forgeries. Now it’s just a case of getting a confession out of the boy, persuading the old woman to tell the truth, and extracting the appendix from our teacher.

 

Pursuing this rather quieter theme, the next episode gives us a little history as to how our hero came to fill a vacancy in this school. A slightly overweight boy was injured when trying to use a vault. No-one is entirely clear how the vault could have become so unstable, but one thing is clear. The teacher was not properly supervising the pupils in his class. The parents complain and he’s moved to another school. This leaves a minor mystery and, when our hero thinks one of her students is bullying another, she intervenes in the family situation and, by accident, solves the mystery of the unstable vault. It’s not a great episode in amateur detective mode, but it has a heart-warming quality as difficult emotional relationships are managed and improved.

Shinobu Takeuchi (Mikako Tabe) and  Taeko Takeuchi (Keiko Matsuzaka)

Shinobu Takeuchi (Mikako Tabe) and Taeko Takeuchi (Keiko Matsuzaka)

 

The next episode begins with a not untypical argument between our hero and Taeko Takeuchi (Keiko Matsuzaka), her mother who accidentally breaks the softball trophy most prized by her daughter. In the heat of the moment, the daughter throws her mother out. This sets the theme as the need for all children to have an adult to depend on. The meat of the story is that the stepfather of one of the girls in our teacher’s class lets out a rundown building to an unemployed man who can’t afford to pay. They get into an argument and a pushing-match sends the stepfather into the wall and unconsciousness. When he wakes up, he has a knife in his hand and the man is dead. The key to understanding what happened is the unemployed man’s son who has gone missing. The teacher and her detectives organise a sweep of all the streets and eventually track him down. She takes him home and cooks him a meal, thus releasing the inner parent. Now all she has to do is solve the problem of how the stabbing occurred and make up with her mother.

Shinobu Takeuchi (Mikako Tabe) and Hiroshi Hatanaka (Akira Takahashi) and Osamu Harada (Oshiro Maeda)

Shinobu Takeuchi (Mikako Tabe) and Hiroshi Hatanaka (Akira Takahashi) and Osamu Harada (Oshiro Maeda)

 

We now have one of these slightly clichéd episodes. The problem is not so much the fact this is less a mystery and more a commentary on the nature of family life in Japan when a working husband moves from a provincial city to Tokyo, it’s that the mechanism involved is obvious from a very early stage. Although there’s one element of uncertainty even that disappears about three-quarters of the way through. So we’re left to reflect on two of the continuing threads. I’m increasingly of the opinion our hero is never going to marry. For all she’s twenty-five and people keep suggesting she could be left on the shelf if she does not take action soon, she’s seems oblivious to the two men so ardently pursuing her. This episode gives her the chance to completely ignore one and treat the other very shabbily (much to the amusement of the junior detectives). The other issue is the realism of the ending. Personally, I would have expected there to be shouting screaming and bloodshed. It’s very disappointing things seem to settle down again so quickly.

 

For other work based on Keigo Higashino’s writing, see:
11 Moji no Satsujin or 11文字の殺人 (2011)
Broken or The Hovering Blade or Banghwanghaneun Kalnal or 방황하는 칼날 (2014)
Bunshin or 分身 (2012)
Galileo or Garireo or ガリレオ
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 1 and 2
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 3 and 4
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 5 and 6
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 7, 8 and 9
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 10 and 11
Galileo: The Sacrifice of Suspect X or Yôgisha X no kenshin (2008)
Midsummer Formula or Manatsu no Houteishiki or 真夏の方程式 (2013)
The Murder in Kairotei or Kairoutei Satsujin Jiken or 回廊亭殺人事件 (2011)
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 1 to 4
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 9 to 12
Platinum Data or プラチナデータ (2013)
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 1 to 5
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 6 to 11
White Night or Baekyahaeng or 백야행 : 하얀 어둠 속을 걷다 (2009)
The Wings of the Kirin or Kirin no Tsubasa: Gekijoban Shinzanmono or 麒麟の翼 ~劇場版・新参者~ (2012)

 

For a Galileo novel, see Salvation of a Saint.

 

Murder in Pigalle by Cara Black

July 21, 2014 4 comments

Murder in Pigalle

Murder in Pigalle by Cara Black (Soho Press, 2014) is the fourteenth book to feature Aimée Leduc as our private detective who specialises in corporate security and computer investigations, finds herself pregnant at the most inconvenient time — taxes are due, people who owe the agency money are slow to pay, and the daughter of one of her friends decides to go missing. We’re steadily moving through history and have now arrived in June 1998 with the world (and France) caught up in the excitement of the World Cup. In one sense, this is the perfect moment to commit crimes because the attention of the majority is caught up in the “excitement” of hosting the competition. Yes France won the right to host for the second time and was all out to put on a good show both on and off the field (for those of you who don’t follow the game, France beat Brazil in the July final). As an aside, the baby’s father is Mélac, a police officer who’s at the bedside of his critically injured daughter in Brittany. Aimée hasn’t yet told him of his impending fatherhood which should tell you something of the nature of their relationship.

 

So there have been three rapes on young girls in and around Pigalle but, at the start of this book, the police have not connected the dots. Unfortunately, Zazie a thirteen-year-old girl who hero-worships Aimée has been inspired to investigate. One of her friends has already been raped and together, they have put together an identikit picture of the man. Zazie has also been talking to an old lady who was in the Resistance during the war, so she’s picked up quite a lot of the lore of secret message drops, surveillance, and so on. She’s even been into Pigalle at night and has photographs which, she thinks, show the man responsible. Sadly, Aimée is distracted when this subject is broached and does not listen with all her attention. So when Zazie fails to come home that evening, she’s caught by guilt and sets off to find her young protégée. That same night, Sylvaine Olivet, another of Zazie’s friends in found dead. It looks as though the rapist has turned into a murderer. It’s possible Zazie was a witness but the Brigade des Minuers is not interested in making Zazie’s disappearance a high priority.

Cara Black

Cara Black

 

As is therefore required in books like this, she and René Friant, her business partner, are pitched into a race against time to find the missing girl. The problem for Aimée is to reach the point where she might look beyond the serial rapist to what else might be going on in Paris (other than the football, of course). It’s easy for the readers because Cara Black sends quite an early signal the answer is going to require some lateral thinking. Nevertheless, Aimée bulls ahead and, as if to prove she’s on the right track, someone takes a shot at her, killing the woman she’s with. Yet, as all seasoned readers know, nothing is ever as straightforward as it first appears.

 

Putting all this together, we have an interesting serial rape case to work through. It’s actually based on a real-world crime and therefore has a certain plausibility about it. The setting in Paris is done well. That said, it’s always difficult to know where to draw the line on how much of the French language to include for local colour. Strictly speaking, all dialogue should be in English. Translating all but everyday words like “bonjour” is slightly insulting. This does have characters breaking out into phrases every now and then which is, I suppose, not unacceptable. Setting this in 1998 was an interesting choice, not only because of the football, but also because Pigalle was beginning a gentrification from a more seamy, sex-oriented area to a more respectable middle class area. So both Aimée and the location are in transition. The discussion of the pregnancy and how she will adapt her lifestyle to incorporate a baby are done well (we even have her absent mother helping from hiding and an interesting comment on the circumstances of her father’s death). The thriller elements also work well and put both mother and baby at risk (which is how it should be if the author is aiming for some degree of realism). This leaves Murder in Pigalle as one of the better books set in France with a good puzzle for our hero to resolve and a not unsympathetic view of the French law enforcement agencies and the complex way in which they are required to work.

 

For a review of another book by Cara Black, see Murder at the Lanterne Rouge.

 

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

 

Reckless Disregard by Robert Rotstein

June 30, 2014 2 comments

Reckless Disregard Cover

This book sets me thinking about what ingredients must be mixed together to make a good legal thriller. Let’s start off with the obvious. At some point before, during or after the book starts, X must break the law and require the services of a lawyer. We are then allowed the privilege of watching said lawyer from the moment of initial advice through to the trial at the end. Although the court room scenes are not mandatory, there must be a good reason for the case failing to come before a judge so said lawyer can demonstrate just why he or she is in such high demand as a trial lawyer. On the way to the legal and thrillerish denouement, our heroic legal manipulator must face dangers. Others in the entourage or potential witnesses are expendable but, of necessity, the legal eagle must fly unscathed in the physical sense (although it’s appropriate from there to be some running, hiding and the occasional blow struck — some lawyers even pick up the occasional bullet wound as a trophy).

Those of you with some legal knowledge will understand the theme of this book from the title. Reckless Disregard by Robert Rotstein (Seventh Street Books, 2014) is about defamation. In this instance, it’s alleged the latest video game from an anonymous underground designer libels a famous Hollywood movie producer. Under American law, it’s necessary to prove the publication of the images and words was malicious. That means the publisher must have shown reckless disregard for the truth, i.e. at least willful blindness. In theory this should be relatively straightforward given this game designer has alleged the movie producer kidnapped and killed an actress. Anyone looking in the historical record would find no mention of said producer ever having anything to do with the actress so here comes a man with one of these apparently unimpeachable reputations to sue an underground revolutionary who dares attack one of the titans of the movie industry. Needless to say, the only person standing between David and Goliath is our series hero, Parker Stern. To put it mildly, he’s not the strongest of performers having lost much of his trial mojo through increasingly severe anxiety attacks. However, this time he’s motivated to take the case because Lovely Diamond is the attorney of record on the other side.

Robert Rotstein

Robert Rotstein

Those of you who have read the first book will know our hero and Lovely ended up an item. In the intervening period, she has broken off the relationship leaving our man somewhat puzzled and deflated. This is not so much a chance for revenge but an opportunity for them to interact again, even if only from opposite sides of the courtroom. He’s not sure what, if anything, will follow on from this, but he feels he has to try. So this part of the book is a great success. Having adopted the cliché of pairing them off, our author now has them as wounded warriors. Since both have their secrets, it’s interesting to watch how they slowly grow more comfortable with each other again. The plot is also very cleverly put together with some nice twists and turns when we get into court. The unravelling of the core mystery about what might or might not have happened to the missing actress is engrossing.

The only problem I have is with the game itself. A not inconsiderable amount of time is devoted to describing the different levels and showing how the game apparently tracks the real world events. I’m not a game-player so I can’t speak for the credibility of this as a real-world game. So I accept such a game might have a cult following and confirm it as an ingenious way to set the hare running to see which dogs try to chase it down. But I have a problem with the later explanation for the game showing one of the murder scenarios, apparently before the murder(s) occur(s) or is/are discovered. The game designer or other(s) helping him/her must have had a good idea how this element was introduced into the game. Yet the designer’s failure to resolve this issue becomes the second reckless disregard. The first is publishing the game knowing there’s no positive evidence to prove the kidnapping/murder ever took place. The best state of the evidence is as a basis for undermining the reputation of the movie mogul. The second is either the designer becoming a murderer or concealing the identity of the murderer.

So we’re left in a very interesting state. Through one of the quirks of examination and cross-examination in trial, Parker Stern’s secret is revealed. Perhaps this will help restore his trial mojo. The relationship with Lovely may be repairable despite the presence of the game-playing son. And a version of justice is achieved so far as all the public and the police are concerned. Putting this together, Reckless Disregard is a very good legal thriller, doing clever things to mix all the ingredients in a relatively new way. But it’s not as good as the first in the series. This is slightly more contrived.

For a review of the first in the series, see Corrupt Practices.

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

Ride Away Home by William Wells

June 21, 2014 1 comment

Ride Away Home by William Wells

Ride Away Home by William Wells (The Permanent Press, 2014) provokes me into firing up Google to check my increasingly fallible memory on just how many stages of grief there are supposed to be. Although I suspect such a question is inherently flawed because the notion we can compartmentalise our emotions into convenient little boxes is rather absurd, it’s potentially a useful guideline. This progression was first proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in On Death and Dying (1969). On a pick-and-mix basis, therefore, people theoretically move from denial, through anger, to bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In this book, a young woman is going through her first year away from home at college when she disappears. Naturally, her parents are quickly on the scene and, as is always the way, her boyfriend is immediately under suspicion. He lawyers up and stoutly refuses any comment. Since there’s no evidence he did anything “wrong”, he remains only a person of interest. As time passes, the probability increases the girl is dead but, not unnaturally, the parents keep hope alive and so live in denial for months. The mother then moves rapidly into depression, decamps into a home for those damaged by traumatic events, and plays little part in the affairs of the world. The father loses his position as a partner in a firm of attorneys — he’s not been putting in the billable hours and a business is a business. As it comes up to the two-year anniversary of his daughter’s disappearance, he decides this is the time for his midlife crisis.

He buys a Harley (something of a departure from his normal BMW approach to comfort on the roads). His private inquiry agent tells him the boyfriend has dropped out of college and moved down south. He therefore plans a road trip. At this point, he has no clear feelings on whether he will actually ride all the way to Key West. Even if he does make it all the way from Minneapolis, he doesn’t know whether he will confront the boy. By temperament, he’s not the archetypical vigilante. The book therefore represents a form of allegory or parable. Much as heroes in classical Graeco/Roman literature set off on a journey not being certain whether they were “free-agents” or being manipulated by the Gods, so our tax warrior feels caught up in inchoate anger. He knows the denial can’t continue, but hasn’t decided whether the boyfriend is a target. As a man whose life has revolved around the dispassionate analysis of tax statutes and accounts, he’s always tried to stay detached. The author therefore invites us to ride with him on a first-person quest to establish a framework of values by which to live the rest of his life. On the way, he meets various stereotypical characters who, whether deliberately or inadvertently, challenge his worldview and strip away some of the outer layers of his emotional defences. Slightly changing the metaphor, think of a meteorite entering the outer fringes of the atmosphere on a collision course with Earth. As the friction builds, the outer layers of the rock are abraded away. For those on the surface of the planet, the question is whether the entire rock will burn up in the atmosphere or will an irreducible core resist the high temperatures and hit the surface?

Because of the nature of the set-up, this is a book that avoids being overly sentimental. Too often, books with grief as their theme end up mawkish and bathetic. This has a sufficiently hard edge throughout that we can watch the man make decisions and not feel embarrassed by how well or badly they turn out. Because he reserves judgement on whether he will actually take revenge (assuming the boyfriend is guilty, of course), our newly-minted biker remains likeable. He becomes a form of Everyman who, like Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress, leaves his hometown to find out what is to come. It proves to be a journey with some heartwarming moments, and some times of despair and doubt. Such is life when you’re on the road. Why is Ride Away Home an allegory? Because the opening sections are so deeply rooted in reality, we have the emotional problem very clearly defined. But the mechanism for enabling him to answer the questions he has posed himself is deliberately deus ex machina. We’re also presented with coincidences and contrivances which enable all the loose plot ends to be tidied up. Real life is never this neat. Hence when we arrive at the final page and have our answer as to whether this everyman is a saint or a revenge-driven murderer, it feels as though it has emerged organically from the events as described. And, if you were minded to read the book as an extended parable, it could teach you a valuable lesson about life for those who remain after a loved one has disappeared. As a first novel, this is an impressive piece of writing and worth reading if you like your “crime” novels to have a slightly more literary approach.

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

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