Monday, August 19, 2013

What's In The Box?

by Charlie Huston
Reviewed by Kemper
4 out 5 stars.

You gotta love a book in which the weapons used by the bad-ass hero include a pair of socks and a ruler.

Skinner was raised in a closed environment as part of a screwy experiment from his autistic parents, and as an adult he worked for an international security firm called Kestrel where he became legendary for his unique method.  Skinner’s Maxim dictated that if anything happened to anyone under his protection, that he would wreak bloody vengeance on anyone and everyone responsible.  This scorched earth policy worked well for a while, but eventually Skinner outlived his usefulness and had to go underground when Kestrel tried to arrange a permanent retirement for him.

Terrance was Skinner’s boss who was forced out of Kestrel, but they want him back to track down the people responsible for a cyber-attack on the US.  Terrance recruits Jae, an analyst with a talent for building robots and OCD tendencies that allow her to find patterns in the chaos of world events, and he contacts Skinner and talks him into providing protection for her.  Jae had a bad experience with Kestrel previously and doesn’t trust them so she and Skinner have that in common.  The two race around the globe uncovering a vast conspiracy that somehow involves a slum in Mumbai.

Charlie Huston used to crank out hard boiled books featuring criminals and/or vampires and then fill them up with enough attitude, atmosphere and graphic violence to make them highly entertaining reads.  He was good enough that he probably could have had a successful career if he had no bigger ambitions, but Huston has been showing a remarkable capacity for growth over his last several books.   In Skinner, he takes what could just be a good set-up for an action spy thriller and gives it a huge amount of depth by using a couple of complex characters to throw around some very big ideas.

Skinner’s story examines how a bunch of variables like economics, political unrest and climate change have combined into a murky threat cloud that always hangs on the horizon and perpetually seems about to engulf the world.  Huston has nailed that general unease that comes with scrolling through a day’s worth of news stories and realizing that the problems far outnumber the solutions.  The Jae character is particularly good at conveying this since she has a tendency to start following patterns obsessively to conclusions that indicate the world is doomed.  While there’s plenty of action, gee-whiz tech and the usual tropes of covert thrillers like suitcases full of fake passports and money, it’s the bigger picture that makes this feel a lot more important than just a typical spies-on-the-run-against-a-vast-conspiracy story.

My one gripe is that there’s almost too much in the book.  I would have liked to get more with Skinner and Jae because they’re both such intriguing characters, but it kind of feels like we’re racing through their history to keep the core story moving.  It almost seems like this could have been the conclusion of a larger series, but it was nice to get a self-contained story rather than an author just kicking off a new multi-book narrative so I won’t bitch too much about it.

Three Characters Haunted by an Event from the Past

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Three of five stars

I first tumbled to Harlan Coben very early in his career when a friend recommended the first or second book in his Myron Bolitar series. I enjoyed the Bolitar books and found Myron to be an unusual but engaging protagonist who almost always found himself in the midst of an interesting plot.

After writing a number of these books, Coben began writing stand-alone thrillers, and I followed dutifully along. Some of these books I liked a lot; others I thought did not work as well, usually because the author insisted on piling one implausible plot twist on top of another until the reader could no longer suspend disbelief and the entire structure collapsed in ruins.

Stay Close falls into the middle of the pack of Coben's books; it's okay, but it's certainly not his best effort. The book involves three central characters who are united by their ties to a terrifying night seventeen years earlier when a man named Stewart Green disappeared. Two people saw Green in an isolated area, dead or very close to it. But neither reported the discovery; the body was never found, and Green is still officially listed as a missing person.

Ray Levine was once a world-class photographer, but he made a number of bad choices that came to a head that fateful night and now he has spiraled down to rock bottom, drinking heavily, living in a crappy apartment and working as a fake paparazzi. Jack Broome is the police detective who can't let go of the case that has haunted him all these years, and Megan Pierce is the suburban wife who's "living the ultimate soccer-mom fantasy and hating it."

Megan is also a woman with a very dark past that she escaped on that night seventeen years ago. After all this time, she decides to pull the curtain back just a bit for a quick glimpse into her former life. Just as she does, though, another man goes missing in the same way as Stewart Green. Everyone involved in the earlier case will be sucked into the new one, with potentially disastrous consequences for all of them.

As is usually the case in one of Harlan Coben's thrillers, this one moves fairly swiftly along, but I had a hard time moving with it. Unhappily, this is one of those books in which the main protagonist, in this case Megan Pierce, makes one astoundingly stupid decision after another, which is the only thing that allows the plot to advance beyond the first chapter. But after seventy-five pages or so, I simply stopped caring what happened to the woman. My attitude by that point was that a person as stupid as she deserved whatever bad things might happen to befall her. And once you stop caring about a book's central character, you usually stop caring about the book itself.

It doesn't help that at some points the writing seems unusually clunky and that the book contains a couple of villains who are simply unbelievable from the outset. By the last hundred pages or so, the book finally gets some traction and the conclusion is fairly satisfying, but by then it almost seems too little too late. Again, this is not a bad book, but a person new to the work of Harlan Coben would probably want to start with another of his efforts.