GO AHEAD, MAKE MY DAY - Mystery Reviews by Harry Shannon.
JERE HOAR - The Hit. New American Library, trade paperback, 2004. Hardcover: Context Books, 2003.
Jere Hoar is a gifted, disciplined and in my opinion sadly under-appreciated talent. He authored the fine collection Body Parts a few years ago. I ran across his first novel The Hit while making one of my numerous, rambling Amazon searches looking for ways to spend money, and bought the book on impulse. The basic plot sounded right up my alley, and it was.
This is a terrific, down-and-dirty noir effort. These days, it is rare for a novel to keep me turning the pages right from the get-go, especially in a genre so laden with cliche, but Hoar certainly got the job done. Protagonist Luke Carr is a troubled ’Nam vet from the woods of Mississippi, a mental patient and murderer who is suffering from severe PTSD. His prison psychiatrist has advised him to write down his life story using different colored pencils (“Pastels when I am unsure, darker colors for certainties.”)
The novel is divided into nine “notebooks,” and as he tells the tale, Luke's prose becomes ever more intense and elegant. The author takes us to the night Luke committed the murder of his “first noncombatant.” One night, on a mountain highway, he ambushes a man named Tom Morris. Luke shoots him with a crossbow and arranges the scene to look like a bad car accident. I don’t want to be a spoiler, so I'll just say that the murder and its aftermath are grisly and upsetting, and brought to mind a scene from the Cohen's Brothers masterpiece of a film BLOOD SIMPLE.
We soon learn that the target was the wealthy husband of Luke’s high-school sweetheart, femme fatale Kinnerly Morris. His torrid, consuming affair with the married Kinnerly is what sets in motion several dark forces that cannot be controlled. Naturally, since this is a noir tale, things immediately get worse.
First, someone witnessed the crime so blackmail ensues. Then our Kinnerly is not quite what she seems. We learn that a mysterious person had earlier approached Luke and offered to pay for the murder he had already planned on commiting. Complication piles upon complication, as the ever-resourceful woodsman and hunter, with the help of his trusty dog Adel, who is alive enough to be a human character, uses all of his talents just to keep his head above water.
Luke Carr bobs and weaves brilliantly, even as he is pursued by a redneck sheriff who is a member of Mensa and does crossword puzzles with a felt tip pen. Luke’s feverish attempts to outsmart a pair of trusty bloodhounds as they close in is worth the price of the book. I approached the end of the novel expecting a bit of a letdown, but only because I recognized a developing plot device used in another well-known tale. Still, Hoar managed to “take the sting” out of that moment with one exceptional line of dialogue.
To sum up, Hoar is a damned fine writer and the bulk of this novel is very tasty and genuinely gripping. It is available now as a trade paperback, and it should not be missed.
G. M. FORD - The Deader the Better (Avon; paperback, 2001; hardcover: William Morrow, 2000)
This is the book that introduced me to Leo Waterman, a big, shambling sixties-type who can’t seem to get past his mid-life crisis. Leo is my kind of guy. He hangs out with perverse forgers, computer geniuses, fussy gay burglars, drunken bums and various garden variety sociopaths. He also reminds me of Travis McGee, in that he has a way of getting himself into some pretty nasty situations.
The beginning of this novel is a set piece that involves the rescue of a teen forced into prostitution. It is gripping and effective – perhaps a bit too effective, since it actually serves to introduce a minor character, and has very little to do with the overall plot. Personally, I felt those gears shifting, and it bothered me a bit, although not enough to take me out of the story.
Leo and his lady friend Rebecca then take a brief vacation into the Pacific Northwest. Along they way, they stop to visit Claudia, a friend of Rebecca’s, and her hunting guide husband, J.D. It seems the couple managed to purchase a nifty piece of rain forest for a song, and some folks are already trying to force them out of business. When J.D. ends up dead, Leo asks one too many questions, and those same people try to eliminate Leo and Rebecca via a staged auto accident.
Big, big mistake.
Against Rebecca’s wishes, Leo and his oddball collection of friends and associates return to Stevens Falls, to sucker punch a host of shady characters, from drop-dead beautiful Mayor Ramona Haynes to Sheriff Hand, who may or may not be a good lawman. Although some of the supporting characters are rednecks out of central casting, the dialogue is always crisp and wryly amusing, and the way this band of brothers goes about flushing out the crooks is well worth the price of admission.
While The Deader the Better is not particularly profound, it’s a solid, entertaining little crime novel that kept me turning the pages and chuckling. I’ll definitely be checking out more of Mr. Ford’s work.
KEVIN WIGNALL - For the Dogs (Simon & Schuster; hardcover, 2004)
A hit man called Lucas lives alone in German-speaking Switzerland, without bothering to learn the language. He doesn’t want to connect. Lucas comes out of a self-imposed retirement to act as a covert bodyguard for Ella, the daughter of an old acquaintance. Ella is a student, somewhat shy, and completely unaware of her father’s somewhat unsavory past. When an attempt is made on Ella’s life, Lucas reveals himself to Ella and her boyfriend, killing the attackers in the process. The three are on the run for the first part of the story, but the boyfriend Chris serves merely as a metaphor for the gulf that divides the two main characters. He’s discarded after serving his purpose.
Wignall is a fine writer, and this book is a character study disguised as a crime story. For the most part, the many killings are described in lean, almost matter-of-fact terms. What is of interest is the arc of Ella from carefree innocent to revenge-seeking sociopath, and Lucas from numb to somewhat alive. The prose is hammered down close to perfection, and the emotional subtext carefully wrought and quite impressive.
For the Dogs is the sort of tale where aging contract killers trade war stories over fine wine and offer homage to the legends of their profession, and nothing is what it seems. It’s a bit like Chinese food in a way, but it’s tasty as hell. I liked it a lot.
– Harry Shannon is the author of Memorial Day: A Mick Callahan Novel, and its sequel, Eye of the Burning Man, both books available from Five Star Mysteries.
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This review previously appeared in Mystery*File 46, November 2004. Copyright © 2004 by Steve Lewis. All rights reserved to contributors.
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