The Dead Don’t Sleep by Steven Max Russo: No need to teach these old dogs any new tricks

The Dead Dont Sleep

The Dead Dont Sleep

by Steven Max Russo

eARC, 292 pg.
Down & Out Books, 2019

Read: October 11-14, 2019


This is one of those thrillers that within a chapter or three, you know pretty much how things are going to go for the rest of the book. That’s me being descriptive, not evaluating anything. There’s nothing wrong with this type of thriller—the fun is in seeing the author execute what you know (and think you know) is coming, and just what kind of surprise is in store for the ending. It’s like playing Mousetrap—everyone knows what’s going to happen when you start the machine going, it’s still fun to watch (see also almost every functional Rube Goldberg machine).

That said, there was one death/serious injury that I predicted at least three different times in my notes (one “he” was ambiguous, I really need to be more specific) that didn’t happen and another that I fully expected that didn’t materialize. So I’m not saying that Russo didn’t have any tricks up his sleeve—there were more than those, too. It’s just that on the whole, you know what this book is going to give you pretty soon (see also: just about every Jack Reacher novel).

So what is this set up?

Frank Thompson’s wife died pretty recently, and he’s not dealing well with the loss. After holing up by himself for a while, he visits a nephew (Bill) in New Jersey—really, his first social contact after her death. Frank’s getting up in years himself, but he’s doing pretty well, all things considered.

Frank and Bill go to the shooting range one day. While there, someone confronts Frank, claiming they know each other—Frank pleads ignorance (a white lie), but the stranger soon figures out who he is. They knew each other back in Vietnam while part of a special combat unit. The stranger (Jasper) and his friends are convinced that Frank did a bad thing to one of their own back in ‘Nam. Frank wouldn’t argue with them, but they all were involved in doing very bad things (as they were ordered to), he’d add. Besides, that was a lifetime ago, and he, Jasper and the rest of the unit have all moved on to civilian life and put those atrocities behind them.

If that were true, this would be a much shorter book. Thankfully for us readers, Jasper and his friends carry a grudge. Two of them—Birdie and Pogo (no, really)—are nearby and available. So after Frank goes home to his house on the outskirts of a small Maine town, the three of them head up to pay him a visit. And it ain’t a social call.

Frank knows that Jasper and others (no idea how many others) are coming, and takes steps to prepare. And then the fecal matter hits the rotary impeller.

That’s a little more long-winded than I’d intended, but I haven’t given too much away. So basically, you’ve got 4 septuagenarians carrying small arsenals in the Maine woods drawing on the training they all received decades ago (one or two of them may have been keeping those skills sharp, but that’s beside the point). None of these guys are in their prime anymore, and more than once I wondered if natural causes would beat an act of violence to the punch (I won’t say if I was right).

Don’t go thinking that this is any kind of comic novel—it’s not Grumpy Old Men III: Locked and Loaded, these are hard men doing violent things. After the trio arrives in Maine, the questions that need to be answered are: how many of these four are going to walk away from this showdown, and what kind of collateral damage will there be?

Not all the characters are as well-rounded as they could be, but they’re all close enough that no one’s going to complain—especially when the action kicks in. You can’t say there are really good guys or bad guys here. Well, that’s not true—there are bad guys and some less-bad guys. No one wears a white hat in this book (at least not those at the center of the action), the hats are all black or dark gray.

This next paragraph contains a spoiler—or something spoiler-adjacent. Feel free to skip it and move on.
There’s a [insert your own Latin-y word here] ex machina element to the last action scene of this novel. I don’t think it was necessary (they almost never are), and a resolution was still possible that would’ve satisfied novels without it. The more that I think about it, what that element means for Frank’s world is pretty disturbing—more than anything else that happened in the book, really. As I write this, it occurs to me that if there’s a sequel, this element is likely going to play a central role, and I’ll retract the last 97 words. Still, I’d have liked to have seen things play out without the             ex machina. But that could just be me.
Back to the no-spoiler zone:

This is the kind of thing that should appeal to fans of Gregg Hurwitz, Brad Meltzer, Joseph Finder or others in that vein. The pacing is tight, the action scenes are well-handled, and the tension is real. This is a great way to spend a couple of hours with some good escapist reading. It’s possible (probable?) for Russo to return to the survivors for a sequel—if he does, I’ll be at the front of the line for it.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Down & Out Books via NetGalley in exchange for this post—thanks to both for this ride.


3.5 Stars

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