The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow: A truly magnificent book that I can’t adequately express my appreciation for

The Power of the DogThe Power of the Dog

by Don Winslow
Series: The Power of the Dog, #1

Paperback, 542 pg.
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2005

Read: December 29, 2018 – January 8, 2019

           The Americans take a product that literally grows on trees and turn it into a valuable commodity. Without them, cocaine and marijuana would be like oranges, and instead of making billions smuggling it, I’d be making pennies doing stoop labor in some California field, picking it.

And the truly funny irony is that Keller is himself another product because I make millions selling protection against him, charging the independent contractors who want to move their product through La Plaza thousands of dollars for the use of our cops, soldiers, Customs agents, Coast guard, surveillance equipment, communications . . . This is what Mexican cops appreciate that American cops don’t. We are partners, mi hermano Arturo, in the same enterprise.

Comrades in the War on Drugs.

We could not exist without each other.

You ever start a book and within a few chapters you know, you just know — the way you know about a good melon — that this is going to be a great book? Not just a good book, an entertaining book, a rave-worthy book, but a great one? Sure, it doesn’t happen often enough, but we’ve all been there. It’s happened almost every time I’ve read a Winslow book, I have to say.

Yet there are eleven books by Winslow that I haven’t read yet. Explain that to me, please.

It’s hard to say exactly when it was that I realized that with The Power of the Dog but it happened — and it took me by surprise for a half of a second, and then the voice in the back of my head said, “Of course.” The scope, the style, the voice, the audacity of the novel — there’s no easy way to describe it. And now I have to try to talk about it? I do super-hero novels, stories about detectives who use magic — or hunt for rare vinyl LPs, teenagers post videos of their drunken parents on Youtube or Picture Books about Die Hard — I posted about (and loved) 2 completely unrelated Crime-Solving Comic Book Artists last year! How am I supposed to talk about this?

After a quick — and disturbing — look at the cost of the War on Drugs in 1997, Winslow takes us back to 1975 in the State of Sinaloa, Mexico. There we meet new DEA agent Art Keller — a Vietnam vet, who’s come to use his experience to help take on the Opium trade. Thanks in large part to those efforts, the Opium trade is devastated — but the industry shifts to cocaine, and well — things go from bad to worse.

We follow Art’s career from 1975 to 2004 — watching him try to stop the flow of drugs from Mexico into the U.S. Calling that a Quixotic effort seems to be an understatement at best — but one particular cartel has made things personal for him and he directs most (if not all) of his efforts — you could argue most of his life — at disrupting their business and, hopefully, dismantling it. It’s no small task, and no quick battle.

But this isn’t just Art’s story — he disappears from the focus several times, in fact. It’s also the story of a maverick Mexican priest as he struggles to minister to various drug dealers, their family members — and their victims. We get to know some members of the Federación very well (too well, in some cases). Also, because the Federación needs customers, we meet several, ahem, NYC-based importers. Connected to all of the above is a high-class prostitute. We see these characters moving through actual history — Iran-Contra, the Mexico City Earthquake, political shifts in Washington. It was striking reading this in 2018/2019, remembering that once upon a time the name “Giuliani” was an invocation of law and order — a name that symbolized a change in organized crime’s power (at least perceived). Watching these individual’s stories weave in and out of each other’s over the decades and over huge geographic areas moves this from an intricate crime story to an epic.

None of these criminals is wholly evil (well, you could make the case for a couple of them, maybe), there are very relatable moments for just about all of them. They love, they laugh, they nurture their kids — they do good things in their community. The same can be said for the law enforcement characters — they aren’t wholly good, in fact, some of what they do is downright despicable. All of them, in short, are very human.

Winslow’s skilled at weaving in seemingly disparate tales into this tapestry and eventually you can see enough of it to appreciate why they’re all there. There are scenes in this book that are among the most depraved I’ve read. Scenes of torture, scenes of murder, scenes of heartbreak. But they’re not written for thrills, they’re not exploitative — they’re just horrific, and very likely based on something that actually happened. There’s a sweet little love story, tucked away in the middle somewhere that I kept wondering why we were getting. It was hundreds of pages, really, before I learned why — I enjoyed it while I could.

There is within this book a very heavy critique on the so-called War on Drugs in the U.S. — at the very least, on the way it’s being waged. Sometimes this comes from the narration, sometimes from a narcotraficante (see the opening quotation), sometimes from DEA agent — it doesn’t really matter whose mouth the critique comes from, it’s biting and it’s typically on point. It will likely make many people uncomfortable — by design; it should make many people upset. But Winslow never browbeats you with these critiques — unless you take the entire book as one, which it very arguably is.

I don’t know if I have the ability to describe Winslow’s writing here. Despite the scope and intricacy of the plot, it’s not a difficult read. Despite the horrors depicted, it’s not overwhelming. In fact, there are moments of happiness, and some pretty clever lines. Which is not to say there’s a light-hand, or that he ever treats this as anything but life-and-death seriousness. It’s not an easy, breezy read — but it’s very approachable.I don’t know if there’s a moment that reads as fiction, either — if this was revealed to be non-fiction, I would believe it without difficulty. I will not say that he transcends his genre to be “Literature,” or that he elevates his work or anything — but I can say that Winslow demonstrates the inanity of pushing Crime Fiction into some shadowy corner as not worthy of attention of “serious” readers.

I think I’ve pretty much covered everything on my pared-down outline. I really want to keep going, but I can’t imagine that many have read this far. As it is, this is at best, an inadequate job describing the book and how wonderfully constructed and written it is. Hopefully, this encourages you to seek more information, or actual reviews about it. Really, The Power of the Dog is a tremendous book and should be read by many. Be one of those.

—–

5 Stars

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In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire: Another Wayward Child’s story — magical, enchanting, heartbreaking. You know the drill.

In an Absent DreamIn an Absent Dream

by Seanan McGuire
Series: Wayward Children, #4

Hardcover, 204 pg.
Tor Books, 2018
Read: January 9, 2019

           …the worst she was ever called where anyone might here was “teacher’s pet,” which she took, not as an insult, but rather as a statement of fact. She was Katherine, she was the teacher’s pet, and when she grew up, she was going to be a librarian, because she couldn’t imagine knowing there was a job that was all about books and not wanting to do it.

Here’s a quick recap of this series for those of you who haven’t heard about it yet/have ignored everything I’ve said about the series these last few years: Imagine Children who go off to a magical kingdom for a bit from our world — Narnia, Fillory, the Lands Beyond, Neverland, Lyrian, whatever you call that land on the other side of the fourteenth door in Coraline, etc. — and then return home. Some will go on to live “normal” lives — others can’t forget or outgrow their attachment to the magical world — some of those, those who want more than anything to return to whatever was on the other side of the door wind up at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. This series is about some of those children.

There’s a basic outline to these books — McGuire introduces you to a Child and a new world. Her language will be lyrical, playful and enchanting. She’ll draw you in with the awe and wonder and while you’re not looking, she’ll set the hook, and you will be as emotionally tied to her characters as you are close family members*. Then something devastating will happen to those characters, and you will feel horrible, yet love the experience. No matter what kind of resolution is found in the book (death, rescue, brokenness), when you close the book you’ll almost instantly start waiting until the next book comes out, because McGuire is just that good.

In this book we meet Katherine — Katherine’s never been good at making friends her age (there are justifiable reasons for this), but she likes talking to adults more, she likes rules, and she loves reading. There’s something about each Wayward Child that readers can identify with, but Katherine is more relatable to readers than the others have been. One day, Katherine comes upon a tree that hadn’t been there before. This tree had a door in it, and before she realized what was happening — she was on the other side of the door, walking down a hall, on her way to a Goblin Market. In the last book, we saw a nonsense world — this is a logic world, through and through. There are rules, enforced by everyone who lives there — and somehow, by the world itself.

Unlike that (mostly) tongue-in-cheek outline above, each of these books are so different from the rest, it’s hard to compare them — so I’ll try not to. But the structure of this seems more different than the others have. So I’m not going to tell you any more about the plot than I have — I’ll just say it’s a great story, incredibly well told — and even when the narration tells you the ending is not going to be “kind”, you keep expecting/hoping/wanting for things to work out for Katherine and her loved ones.

I’ve made the ending sound bad — it’s not “happy,” but I’m not complaining, I’m not criticizing, I’m most definitely not warning a reader away. It’s the right ending for this story, it’s absolutely how things needed to go — but this is not the Feel-Good Novella of the Year. It is wonderfully written, beautifully written, imaginative, awe-inspiring, delightful, and eventually heartbreaking. McGuire’s one of the best at work today — and this is proof of it.

Yes, you can read these out-of-order — but I don’t recommend it. And hey, were talking 200 pages or less each, you’ve got time for that. You’ll be glad you did (once you stop feeling horrible)


* That might be a bit hyperbolic.

—–

5 Stars

Fletch (Audiobook) by Gregory Mcdonald, Dan John Miller: A Strong Audio Version of One of My All-Time Favorites

Fletch (Audiobook)Fletch

by Gregory Mcdonald, Dan John Miller (Narrator)
Series: Fletch, #1

Unabridged Audiobook, 5 hrs. and 57 mins.
Blackstone Audio, 2018

Read: November 27 -28, 2018


I re-read the paperback of this a few years ago (with intentions of reading the whole series again, which never went anywhere), before this blog started — for some reason (probably brevity), I didn’t repost what I put on Goodreads here. Until now.

What an outstanding read. Funny, satirical, with a lot of heart, crackling dialogue…oh yeah, and a pretty solid mystery.

It has none of the goofiness, and better plotting than the Chase flick (which I really do enjoy as its own entity)

The first–and possibly best–of a great series. Worth reading again and again.

Yeah, that’s all that I wrote. Who knew I could be so non-rambling? Anyway, I really don’t have much more to say about this one (other books in the series, probably).

Why do I bring this up? Well, Blackstone Audio started releasing new audiobook versions of the series last year. I’ve listened to Fletch and it was really, really good.

Dan John Miller does a bang-up job with the narration. I’ve read every book in the series multiple times — some of them several. I’m going to give a conservative estimate of 15 reads of Fletch before the audiobook. I know each sentence, I know how these people should sound, I’ve “heard” them more times than I can remember and there was little chance that some new voice in my head was going to be able to compete. And Miller did pretty good — I don’t agree with every choice he made, but I liked almost everything he did.

That may seem like faint praise, but think of it as never knowing that Darrin Stevens had ever been portrayed by anyone but Dick York, you’d watched York’s 170 episodes a handful of times and then one day you stumble onto a one of Dick Sargent’s 80 episodes. You instantly react, “hey, that’s not Darrin!” and then by the end of the episode, you’ve accepted him. That’s a fairly tortured analogy, but it’s the best I can do.

I’ll be honest, I’m a little worried about Miller’s take on Francis Xavier Flynn ruining my appreciation for him, but once we’re past that, I think he’ll win me over again (and who know, I might tolerate it).

If you’ve never read a Gregory MacDonald Fletch novel — trust me, they’re better than the movies. They’re a dynamite series — and seem to be in very capable hands with Miller’s narration, which would be a great way to meet I. M. (Irwin Maurice) Fletcher, your favorite investigative journalist.

Thanks to Brian at Brian’s Book Blog for exposing me to the audiobooks — I owe ya one!

—–

5 Stars

My Favorite 2018 Non-Fiction Reads

Like every single year, I didn’t read as much Non-Fiction as I meant to — but I did read a decent amount, more than I did in 2016-17 combined (he reports with only a hint of defensiveness). These are the best of the bunch.

(in alphabetical order by author)

Lessons From LucyLessons From Lucy: The Simple Joys of an Old, Happy Dog

by Dave Barry

My original post
So, I figured given the tile and subject that this would be a heavier Dave Barry read, with probably more tears than you anticipate from his books — something along the lines of Marley & Me. I was (thankfully) wrong. It’s sort of self-helpy. It’s a little overly sentimental. I really don’t know if this is Barry’s best — but it’s up there. Lessons From Lucy is, without a doubt, his most mature, thoughtful and touching work (that’s a pretty low bar, I realize — a bar he’s worked hard to keep low, too).

5 Stars

 The War Outside My Window The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham, 1860-1865

by Janet E. Croon, ed.

My original post
LeRoy Wiley Gresham was 12 when he started keeping a diary. LIttle did he know at that point that he was about to witness the American Civil War (and all the desolation it would bring to Georgia) and that he was dying (he really didn’t figure that out until the very end). Instead you get an almost day-by-day look at his life — what he does, reads, hears about (re: the War) and feels. It’s history in the raw. You have never read anything like this — it will appeal to the armchair historian in you (particularly if you’ve ever dabbled in being a Civil War buff); it’ll appeal to want an idea what everyday life was like 150 years ago; there’s a medical case study, too — this combination of themes is impossible to find anywhere else. This won’t be the easiest read you come across this year (whatever year it is that you come across it), but it’ll be one of the most compelling.

5 Stars

TimekeepersTimekeepers: How the World Became Obsessed With Time

by Simon Garfield

My original post
I, for one, have never thought that much about my relation to time, my relation to clocks/watches, etc. I know they govern our lives, to an extent that’s troublesome. But where did that come from, how did we get hooked on these things, this concept? These are brief studies/historical looks/contemporary observations — and I’m not selling it too well here (trying to keep it brief). It’s entertainingly written, informative, and thought-provoking. Garfield says this about it:

This is a book about our obsession with time and our desire to beat it. . . The book has but two simple intentions: to tell some illuminating stories, and to ask whether we have all gone completely nuts.

He fulfills his intended goals, making this well worth the read.

4 Stars

Everything is NormalEverything is Normal: The Life and Times of a Soviet Kid

by Sergey Grechishkin

My original post
If you grew up in the 80s or earlier, you were fascinated by Soviet Russia. Period. They were our great potential enemy, and we knew almost nothing about them. And even what we did “know” wasn’t based on all that much. Well, Sergey Grechishkin’s book fixes that (and will help you remember just how much you used to be intrigued by “Evil Empire”). He tells how he grew up in Soviet Russia — just a typical kid in a typical family trying to get by. He tells this story with humor — subtle and overt. It’s a deceptively easy and fun read about some really dark circumstances.

4 Stars

Planet FunnyPlanet Funny: How Comedy Took Over Our Culture

by Ken Jennings

My original post
Half of this book is fantastic. The other half is … okay. It’ll make you laugh if nothing else. That might not be a good thing, if you take his point to heart. We’ve gotten to the point now in society that laughter beats honesty, jokes beat insight, and irony is more valued than thoughtful analysis. How did we get here, what does it mean, what do we do about it? The true value of the book may be what it makes you think about after you’re done.

3.5 Stars

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck (Audiobook)The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life

by Mark Manson, Roger Wayne (Narrator)

My original post
This is an enjoyable, amusing, call to re-examine your priorities and goals. It’s not about ceasing to care about everything (not giving a f^ck), but about being careful what you care about (giving the right f*cks). Manson’s more impressed with himself than he should be, but he’s a clear and clever writer displaying a lot of common sense. Get the audiobook (I almost never say that) — the narration is worth a star by itself (maybe more).

4 Stars

Dear Mr Pop StarDear Mr Pop Star

by Derek & Dave Philpott

My original post
If you read only one book off this list, it should probably be the next one. But if you pick this one, you’ll be happier. This is a collection of correspondence to pop musicians/lyricists picking apart the lyrics, quibbling over the concepts, and generally missing the point. Then we get to read the responses from the musician/act — some play with the joke, some beat it. Sometimes the Philpott portion of the exchange is better, frequently they’re the straight man to someone else. Even if you don’t know the song being discussed, there’s enough to enjoy. Probably one of my Top 3 of the year.

5 Stars

ThemThem: Why We Hate Each Other – and How to Hea

by Ben Sasse

My original post
My favorite US Senator tackles the questions of division in our country — and political divisions aren’t the most important, or even the root of the problem. Which is good, because while he might be my favorite, I’m not sure I’d agree with his political solutions. But his examination of the problems we all can see, we all can sense and we all end up exacerbating — and many of his solutions — will ring true. And even when you disagree with him, you’ll appreciate the effort and insight.

5 Stars

Honorable Mention:

Henry: A Polish Swimmer's True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to AmericaThe Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

by Steven Pinker

I started this at a bad time, just didn’t have the time to devote to it (and the library had a serious list waiting for it, so I couldn’t renew it. But what little I did read, I thoroughly enjoyed and profited from — am very sure it’d have made this post if I could’ve gotten through it. I need to make a point of returning to it.

Them: Why We Hate Each Other – and How to Heal by Ben Sasse: A Profound and Helpful (and Hopeful) Book I Wish I Could Adequately Discuss

ThemThem: Why We Hate Each Other – and How to Hea

by Ben Sasse

Hardcover, 288 pg.
St. Martin’s Press, 2018
Read: November 27 – 30, 2018

I really do prefer to come up with my own synopsis/summary, but I was struggling to come up with one without this taking 3-4 times as much space as I usually do for an entire post. So, I’ll just use the Publisher’s:

           Something is wrong. We all know it.

American life expectancy is declining for a third straight year. Birth rates are dropping. Nearly half of us think the other political party isn’t just wrong; they’re evil. We’re the richest country in history, but we’ve never been more pessimistic.

What’s causing the despair?

In Them, bestselling author and U.S. senator Ben Sasse argues that, contrary to conventional wisdom, our crisis isn’t really about politics. It’s that we’re so lonely we can’t see straight—and it bubbles out as anger.

Local communities are collapsing. Across the nation, little leagues are disappearing, Rotary clubs are dwindling, and in all likelihood, we don’t know the neighbor two doors down. Work isn’t what we’d hoped: less certainty, few lifelong coworkers, shallow purpose. Stable families and enduring friendships—life’s fundamental pillars—are in statistical freefall.

As traditional tribes of place evaporate, we rally against common enemies so we can feel part of a team. No institutions command widespread public trust, enabling foreign intelligence agencies to use technology to pick the scabs on our toxic divisions. We’re in danger of half of us believing different facts than the other half, and the digital revolution throws gas on the fire.

There’s a path forward—but reversing our decline requires something radical: a rediscovery of real places and human-to-human relationships. Even as technology nudges us to become rootless, Sasse shows how only a recovery of rootedness can heal our lonely souls.

America wants you to be happy, but more urgently, America needs you to love your neighbor and connect with your community. Fixing what’s wrong with the country depends on it.

Now, a lot of people are talking about/writing about negative tweets, hostility between parties, loss of civility, etc. in our contemporary culture. But most of them are discussing symptoms of something deeper — and addressing the symptoms isn’t going to help much. Sasse wants to focus on the underlying issues and spends a lot of time talking about them before describing how he best thinks we can take care of them (and the symptoms).

I am not entirely convinced that he’s diagnosing the problems correctly — but he’s as close as I’ve seen. In short, we’ve stopped seeing our fellow Americans as countrymen that need to be convinced and compromised with, instead as evil opponents that need to be defeated and humiliated. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking politics, social policy, or people who like a TV show you don’t. The loss of civility, decency and humility in our culture is a clear and present danger to our union.

I’ve got a strong, strong desire to spend a week or two posting about this book — going through it a chapter at a time. But this isn’t that kind of blog — and I just don’t have that kind of time. There are places for that sort of conversation, this isn’t one of them. The books thought-provoking, inspiring, discouraging, and entertaining — not usually at the same time, but frequently within a couple of pages. I took pages of notes — really. Some of them just because I liked his phrasing. Some because I wanted to spend some time thinking about what he said, or doing follow-up reading, Some because I thought he nailed the idea.

Now, while Sasse goes to great pains to keep the book a-political (at least when it comes to specific policies), he correctly sees that politics is one of the main ways we’re separating ourselves from one another — or are being separated by them. So he talks about some of the ways that’s happening, and because he’s more familiar with the antics of the Right, he focuses primarily on them (also, it’ll give him more credibility to beat up his “own” team than the other guys). There are some Republicans that he cites favorably, and some Democrats that he puts in negative light — but primarily, Democrats come out of his book looking a lot better than his fellow Republicans do. I liked that a lot. If nothing else, it shows that Sasse’s willing to practice a lot of what he preaches (maybe all of it, I don’t know).

Sasse writes with conviction and compassion, humor and wisdom, even if (maybe especially if) you disagree with his politics, he’ll win you over with his common-sense realism. Some of his proposed solutions seem very pie-in-the-sky, and those are my favorites. Some of them seem more likely to succeed, but either way, just people talking and thinking about them is a step in the right direction. And I can’t help but imagine just that would be enough to satisfy Sasse. Read this book. Get others to read it. Talk about it.

—–

5 Stars

2018 Library Love Challenge

Pub Day Repost: Lies Sleeping by Ben Aaronovitch: Things get Intense in the Ongoing Conflict between The Faceless Man and The Folly.

Lies SleepingLies Sleeping

by Ben Aaronovitch
Series: The Rivers of London, #7eARC, 304 pg.
Daw Books, 2018
Read: October 3 – 5, 2018

I’ve got to say, I’d much rather be talking about this book in detail with someone else who had read the series than talking about it in spoiler-free form, so much of what I feel strongest about with this book cannot be discussed. Aaronovitch has outdone himself this time — it’s the best book of the series thus far, and that’s no mean feat.

It’s easy — far too easy — when thinking about this series to think of the lighter aspects — the humor, the heart, Peter’s growing pains, the snark, the pop culture references, and whatnot. That’s typically where my mind goes, anyway. But time after time, when picking up the latest novel, or even rereading one, I’m struck by how carefully written, how detailed everything is, how layered the text is — and I feel bad for underestimating Aaronovitch. Not that I have anything against breezy, jokey prose — but there are differences. Nor am I saying these books are drudgery — at all — the stories are fun, the voice is strong, and the narration will make you grin (at the very least, probably laugh a few times, too). In Lies Sleeping part of that care, part of the thoroughness of this novel is how there is a tie — character, event, call-back, allusion — to every novel, novella, comic arc involved in the Rivers of London up to this point — if you haven’t read everything, it won’t detract from your understanding of the novel — but if you have read them all, if you catch the references — it makes it just that much richer.

So what is this novel about? Well, after years of chasing The Faceless Man (and The Faceless Man II), Peter Grant (now a Detective Constable) and Nightengale have his identity, have several leads to follow to track him down — or at least his supporters and accessories (willingly or not). Better yet — the Metropolitan Police Force have given them the manpower they need to truly track him down and interfere with his funding and activities.

During this operation, Peter, Guleed and Nightengale become convinced that Martin Chorley (and, of course, former PC Lesley May) are preparing for something major. They’re not sure what it is, but the kind of magic involved suggests that the results would be calamitous. How do you prepare for that? How do you counter the unexpected, but dangerous? There are two paths you follow: thorough, careful, borderline-tedious policework; and bold, creative, innovative thinking. The two of those employed together lead to some great results — and if Peter Grant isn’t the embodiment of both, he’s . . . okay, he’s not perfect at the former, but he can pretend frequently (and has colleagues who can pick up the slack).

Not only do we get time with all our old friends and foes — we meet some new characters — including a River unlike anyone that Father or Mama Thames as yet introduced to. Mr. Punch is more involved in this story than he has been since Midnight Riot, but in a way we haven’t seen before. Most of the character things I want to talk about fit under the “spoiler” category, so I’ll just say that I enjoyed and/or loved the character development and growth demonstrated in every returning character.

There’s more action/combat kind of scenes in this book than we’re used to. I couldn’t be happier — Peter’s grown enough in his abilities and control to not need Nightengale to bail him out of everything. Nightengale and Peter working together in a fast-paced battle scene is something I’ve been waiting to read for 7 years. It was worth the wait.

As I said before, Lies Sleeping is the best and most ambitious of the series — the richness of the writing, the audacity of the action, the widening scope of the novel, the Phineas and Ferb reference, the epic battle scenes, the growth in Peter, Bev, and Guleed (and maybe even Lesley), the ending rivals Broken Homes‘ — all add up to a fantastic read. Yeah, I’m a fanboy when it comes to this series, and Lies Sleeping made me a happy fanboy. I have no idea how Aaronovitch moves on from this point with these books, but I cannot wait to find out.

—–

5 Stars
Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Berkley Publishing Group via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

Her Last Move by John Marrs: This Thriller Left Me Feeling Gobsmacked and Awestruck

(that’s too tiny to read, sorry, click here to embiggen. There are a lot of great writers here — you’re going to want to check out those other posts.)

Her Last MoveHer Last Move

by John Marrs

eARC, 352 pg.
Thomas & Mercer, 2018
Read: November 8 – 12, 2018

           The very fact people were talking about him and taking him seriously was proof he was on the right path. But branding him a serial killer was lazy. Serial killers and psychopaths murder out of compulsion, he reminded himself. They do it because they have no choice. He killed with purpose. And eventually, everyone would understand why.

This is one of those books that I’m not going to do justice to. I know that now, and if not for the deadline of posting in a few hours, I’d probably walk away now and come back daily for until next Tuesday and post something I don’t like. But I do have that deadline, so I have to post something I’m not satisfied with in a few hours. I just like this one so much; and have so much that I want to say, but won’t because it would ruin your experience, that I know I’ll want a couple of mulligans to this post.

This starts off with one of those chapters we’ve all read too many times — a budding serial killer is preparing to make his first kill and is indulging in some interior monologue beforehand. This is where we start to get an understanding of the character, why he thinks he needs to be killing, why he’s so wonderful/special/different. But this chapter isn’t quite that — and by the time you realize this isn’t following the standard template, Marrs has his hooks in you — and this book is off to a startling and bloody start.

DS Becca Vincent is a young detective just trying to get somewhere in her career — it seems that her superiors, including (infuriatingly enough) women, are holding her back because of her devotion to her daughter. Not that her mother considers her that devoted as she’s doing most of the hands-on care while Becca is at work. She’s in the crowd when the first killing happens and is the first police presence at the scene. She also is the first to tie that victim to another murder victim. She leverages this into a spot on the investigation team, where she hopes she can make enough of a difference to lead to more responsibility in the future.

The first thing she’s assigned to do is to go over the CCTV tapes with a “super-recogniser.” I don’t know if this is a real thing or not, and don’t care. It works really well in this book — these are a select team of people with near-eidetic memories for faces who spend every shift pouring through security footage for faces — either to track down suspects or identify people who are near too many crime scenes to chalk up to coincidence. We meet DS Joe Russell as he recognizes a suspect on the street while riding a bus and chases him down. Becca meets him in less exciting circumstances — a dirty squadroom in a less-than-impressive looking building. She doesn’t buy the concept originally, but Joe wins her over pretty quickly.

The investigation doesn’t move quickly, there’s a lot of manpower put into it (more and more all the time), but progress is slow. A friendship develops (not without a few bumps) between Joe and Becca much more quickly, and they clearly work together well.

The killer’s spree does move quickly on the other hand. He has a plan, he’s been developing it, nurturing it, and getting it ready to carry out for a very long time. He’s spent years setting up these dominoes and when he knocks the first over, the rest fall quickly. As we watch him do that, we learn what shaped him throughout his life into the monster he’s become. Nothing that happens to him justifies what he’s doing — nothing could — but it helps the reader understand him, and empathize with him to a degree (until he gets to a certain point and you can’t empathize with him anymore).

The book is full of sincere and devoted professionals trying to get the job done in the best way to protect lives and stop the killer — we focus on a couple of them, but they’re clearly all over the place. Unlike the people on TV, these professionals have family, friends, medical issues, children, pasts, problems and joys outside the job who will distract from and inform their performance on the job. Watching Becca and Joe unsuccessfully balance these parts of their life (particularly given the pressures as the number of bodies rises) is just one of the things that Marrs does right. Come to think of it, you can say the same thing about our killer (for most of the book anyway). I’m really impressed at how much genuine tension and drama Marrs is able to mine from this.

Each death is increasingly horrific — seriously, these are some of the most gruesome murders I’ve read. Each reveals more about the killer and what’s driving him. The reader (as we have more information than the police) will put the pieces together before the Becca and Joe do. But when things start to click for the police, they’re able to figure things out quickly. It’s a very satisfying moment — the question is, do they figure things out in time to save anyone on the killer’s list?

I’ve never read Marrs before — but I will again. There’s not a wasted word in these 352 pages, not a throwaway line, useless exchange. My notes are filled with “Is he going somewhere with ____?” and “There’d better be a pay off to ___” Every time, without fail, I could’ve gone back and added the page/line that demonstrated he was going somewhere with that idea or paid off that observation. Even in my favorite reads of 2018, there are moments we probably don’t need — most of which I’m happy to have — lines, ideas, scenes that could be cut without hurting things. That’s not the case here — anything you read here is important, even if (maybe especially if) it doesn’t seem so.

I’m not sure how this would hold up to repeated reading — a lot of thrillers don’t. And I haven’t had time to try this one, but I think it’d hold up pretty well, if you’re not distracted by wondering what Marrs (or his characters) are up to, or what’s going to happen next, etc. you can focus on all the subtle little things he’s doing to create the anticipation and tension, and appreciate the skill involved in grabbing the reader and putting them through the paces.

This will suck you in, keep you entertained through the paces of the investigation, and lull you into thinking you know how things are going just long enough for you to get complacent so he can drop the floor out from underneath you. Marrs makes bold choices and will catch you off-guard at least once — I can practically guarantee that. This is one of those books that will lead you to shirk responsibilities at home and work; postpone things like eating and sleeping; and momentarily resent your family for interacting with you — particularly the last thirty percent or so (although you might have to might have to take a quick break to absorb what you just read or catch your breath). One of the best I’ve read this year — I hope you give this a shot and I bet you’ll agree.

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5 Stars

My thanks to damppebbles blog tours for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials they provided — as well as Thomas & Mercer and the fine folks at Netgalley for the eARC.