Friday, July 27, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: The Prophet by Michael Koryta

    Michael Koryta's ninth book, The Prophet, is scheduled for release on August 7, 2012. After three paranormal thrillers, The Prophet is a return to Mr. Koryta's roots: a mystery set in northeast Ohio. Since I am a fan of mysteries, a fan of Mr. Koryta, and a northeast Ohioan, I was excited to get my hands on a copy of this thriller. And I was not disappointed. On page five, still part of the prologue, I knew I was hooked after reading this, a glimpse inside the mind of the as of yet unknown antagonist:
     Unshakable confidence. Unshakable stupidity.
     He is fascinated by the confident specimens of the helpless. He finds no fascination in the fearful. 

     The story is about Adam and Kent Austin, brothers who are tormented over twenty years after their sister was kidnapped and murdered. Adam, the older of the two, blamed himself, and joined his father in drinking too much and obsessing on revenge. He ruined his chances of advancing his promising football career when he left Ohio State after only one semester. He eventually returned to his home to work as a bail bondsmen in a struggling blue collar city. Kent focused on football, becoming the head coach of the high school team he played on. He found religion, had a beautiful family, and was cool, calm, and collected; a respected member of society. Neither of the brothers had fully moved on after the death of their sister, and when another high school girl is found murdered, it comes back to haunt them. It doesn't take long for Adam and Kent to realize they both were to blame for the girl's death, and the killer doesn't seem to have any intention of letting them forget it. 
     Michael Koryta has grown as an author with every book, but The Prophet may be the most notable since Envy the Night. He superbly developed the character of two protagonists. Both brothers had likable and dis-likable qualities, both had good intentions, and despite doing things differently, neither were really wrong in the reasoning behind their choices. The antagonist was beautifully despicable, rich with evil, a pleasure to hate. 
     Good character development is what makes an author great, which makes me feel as if I know the characters and understand their thoughts and actions. Consider this exchange between Adam and Kent:
    He looked back at Kent. "Can you do that? Because you're going to need to. The shotgun rounds will drop him, but they won't keep him down. Not a .410 shell, which is what this takes. So you'll need to be able to finish it. Can you do that?"
     I don't hope to have the opportunity to find out."
     "Can you do it?" Adam said. "Because otherwise, there's no point, Kent. Go buy some pepper spray and hope the neighbors hear with Beth screams." 
     Kent winced, turning his head as if to shed the words. Then he swallowed, looked back at Adam, and extended his hand for the gun.
     This exchange was emotional for me, brought tears to my eyes; brothers, not on the best terms, but there for each other, talking about decisions that had to be made, life and death decisions, about character, and fundamental truth. But to a reader who had not read the 253 previous pages, hadn't known Adam and Kent Austin, would likely not have had a similar response, there would be no emotional investment in the people having that conversation.
     Dialogue like this, between characters that seem alive and real to a reader, is what makes reading worth it, something that can rarely, if ever, be captured in a movie or television show. Plot is sometimes secondary to good, believable characters; a good plot can not survive bad characters, but a book with a weak plot but likable heroes can. In The Prophet, a reader will experience the best of both.  
     Finally, just as a quick side note for those who aren't football fans, don't let that disuade you from reading The Prophet. While football was integral to the book, defined the characters, it isn't what the story was about. It was much deeper than that. And Mr. Koryta will have you if not loving football, then at least caring about the outcome of the games in this book.
     Michael Koryta has become an author unto himself. His books can compete with the best--Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, Daniel Woodrell, James Lee Burke, Stephen King, Lawrence Block--and he has developed a style that is unlike the others, making him a stand-out author. I look forward to reading many more books from him. 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Black & White by Wes Albers

     "I wish I could remember my last solid shit but I can't."

     So begins Black & White, the debut novel by Wes Albers. I first learned about this book at one of my trade web sites, or in a police magazine; a novel about a San Diego Police Officer, by a San Diego police officer, with a plea to give it a try. I did, and now look forward to more from Wes Albers.

     John Hatch is a veteran San Diego police Patrolman, partnered with a rookie just off field training, in a not-so-nice part of town. He is single (never married), middle-aged, and appropriately bitter about his station in life, but not so much that he can't enjoy himself or has become pessimistic about ever finding happiness. He is a cop, which he distinguishes nicely from police officer, he likes it, and even acknowledges that to be successful at anything else would require not being a successful cop.
     As you might expect, Hatch has his foes. One is a new Sergeant, one who has moved up the ranks quickly, but was never a cop, looking to rise to the top. "Let me put it this way, the cream always rises to the top. You've heard that before, haven't you, John?" says Sgt. Roosevelt, after questioning why Hatch is still only a patrolman, and why he so quickly is not. 

     Black & White, described by several other reviewers as gritty, is full of lines of literary genius:
Eating a carne asada burrito is happiness, but the satisfaction always leads to a messy run to the crapper. Life is tough and makes no promises. 
It was never that complicated. I just needed one little clue and the answers would become as apparent as the intent of drunken teenagers on prom night.
     Before you think this is the classic police novel, don't! It has some great police stories, and one whodunnit, but the mystery plays a secondary role to the character study of John Hatch.
     Black & White is written in the first person, which I normally don't like in crime fiction because it doesn't allow for a more objective view of the protagonist. But it works in this book because of Hatch's self-awareness.
     John Hatch is a complicated man. He is a cop first, but has not given up on wanting more. He is a patrolman, and will listen to the boy-wonder Sergeant, but only because he has to. But when I expect a confrontation, he takes the diplomatic route. When I expect the cold, callous attitude of the tough-guy book cop, there is a kindness or empathy that surprised me. He is frustrated by having to deal with a rookie patrolman, but also knows his role in developing that patrolman's skills, turning into a cop, which is is reminded of by his retiring mentor.
Author Wes Albers
     Other times expectations are right on. Hatch does go head to head with the Sergeant, and puts up a wall between people he cares about.  But what makes it more real to me than many other police novels is that Hatch is aware, sometimes painfully, of his conduct, its consequences, and how he might be able to do things differently to achieve a better result. 

     If you like police novels, or are a police officer, know a police officer, or are curious about police officers, give this book a read. It is entertaining and enlightening, and will make you crave more from Wes Albers and John Hatch.