The weaknesses of guys like Carl permitted guys like Barney to exist and persevere. Barney could fix things. Lots of people can’t fix a leaky faucet. Even more people had no idea how their automobile worked; it’s just a magic box, you get inside and it goes. Barney could strip an engine or put a drop of solder into an iPod and make the magic thing go again.
David J. Schow isn’t a name I’m familiar with, and as he doesn’t do much in the realm of mystery-crime-thrillers, this is his first Hard Case Crime volume. He does a lot with horror screenplays; film credits includes The Crow, Texas Chainsaw Massacres III and The Beginning, Nightmare on Elm Street V, and two Critters movies (3 and 4), on top of a number of ’80s horror novels and short-stories, making me realize I’m quite familiar with Schow’s work after all. Most of his stuff falls under the genre of “splatterpunk,” which is self-explanatory. Schow’s prose work is heavily short fiction, though he’s been writing more crime-thriller novels, and ended up writing a Hard Case Crime volume.
The plot sounds pretty straightforward. Carl Ledbetter is in a jam after a Mexican drug cartel takes his wife hostage. (Very topical and very modern, which I thought was pretty slick.) Carl is getting pretty desperate, so he calls up this guy he knows, Barney, who he met in Iraq. In fact, Barney saved Carl’s life, and Carl figures since Barney’s a good fixer he’s the only one who can get Carl’s wife out of this mess. For a price.
So, things sound roughly along the lines the regular HCC mold. Until we get to the first, major surprise in the first part. See, things go tits up, Barney ends down shit creek for far too long, and he makes it his life’s goal to exact revenge on the people who’ve wronged him. Namely, the drug cartel, and everyone else in Mexico who gets on his bad side. The only other spoiler you’re getting is that it has a heavy luchador subplot. Yeah, you know, masked Mexican wrestlers.
The novel falls roughly into two categories. The first is revenge fiction: Barney got royally screwed over, and wants to head back to take some sweet, sweet revenge. The second would be men’s action-adventure, in the vein of those ‘70s novel series of full-force violence against whoever’s on the hit list this week (organized crime, Nazis, Communists, Arabs, Eurotrash). There’s no real mystery here, no question of what’s going to happen, though there are a few big double-crosses and twists. This is the genre filled with spent casings and bullet-riddled corpses, and where blood flows like water. Don’t expect secondary characters to have much of an impact—they’re here to kill and be killed, that’s it. There’s plenty of unabashed gun porn, going over in rigorous detail why SIGs are superior firearms, and it gets more intense when Barney starts custom-building his pieces.
I’m kind of familiar with this genre—I own far more Executioner novels than I’m ready to admit, most of them a “gift” I bought from a friend—so it didn’t bother me so much as surprise me. However, this is not everyone’s cup of tea, and by everyone, I mean “a large number of the people who subscribe to Hard Case Crime” and “most people in general.” This novel doesn’t sugarcoat violence, and this isn’t “shock violence,” or “kill a couple of bad people” violence, or most of the other violence that occurs in a HCC novel. This book goes for the throat, and it has claws. If you’re put off by emotionless slaughter and gun porn, or if you don’t know what “gun porn” is, this is not the book for you.
On the flipside, it’s recklessly fast-paced after the first two parts—hell, it doesn’t even bother with chapters—and the action is cinematic enough for the silver screen. (This would make a great grindhouse movie, to be honest, in the vein of Machete or Hobo With A Shotgun.) After the setup creating the need for revenge, all that’s left is revenge, and the non-stop action made it very hard to put the book down.
It’s also worth saying that for a writer mostly associated with horror, this is a striking piece of work outside that genre. Schow has nailed most of the little pieces that make up a pulpy action novel, updated to the modern age with very topical subject matter (Mexican cartels popped up in the news right after I picked up the book). For example, a lot of men’s action-adventure novels have these “history lesson” parts explaining weird things relative to the narrative in great detail; this one’s got a ton about SIG pistols, and even more about luchadors. There’s still a few hints of the horror writer entrenched in the back of the reader’s mind, from the grim situations and gritty atmosphere—namely in the first two parts.
The cover is by Joe Devito, and I don’t remember many other HCC works by him. It’s got a unique style, and is pretty fitting. Pay attention to the cover and you might notice something odd; it has a major impact on the story, and is something very minor, and if you don’t like spoilers then don’t stare too closely. Frankly I missed it the first time around, and was kind of surprised during the read-through; shows what I know. It’s obvious enough if you know what the hell I’m talking about (e.g., if you read the book), but at a casual glance it’s just pretty basic: action dude holding a gun to a hot chick’s head.
This was an interesting change of pace for HCC; I haven’t seen that many of the “men’s action-adventure”/gun porn books in the lineup. In some ways it’s a refreshing change from the other genres (hardboiled P.I./detective, adultery, crime, etc.) which get the most HCC servicing, and it is decent entertainment. The build up is a bit slow, but the action is a tense, taut thrill ride. At the end of the day, the plot is minimal: torture, revenge, violence, death, redemption.
Imagine a Gold Eagle book juiced up on speed, without a named-and-numbered protagonist (“Mack Bolan: Executioner #597”), and you’ve got a good idea what you’re getting into. Don’t expect anything more, and if that’s up your alley, it’ll be at least entertaining, a few fast nights of death and glory. If it’s not… skip this one, you won’t miss anything, and will probably be well rewarded by reading something else.
Among his many friends are a special group found in the back of his workshop; his closest and most intimate friends, gathered there on the table. You probably already know their names, too: Remington, Ruger, Browning, Beretta, Kimber, Colt, Smith, Wesson, SIG.