Monday, 22 July 2013


Rage Against the Dying, by Becky Masterman
Brigid Quinn is fifty-nine years old.  She is a former FBI agent who took early retirement because she didn’t get along with her boss, ‘that asshole’ Roger Morrison, head of the Bureau in Tuscon Arizona, where she lives with her new husband Carlo, a retired Doctor of Philosophy and former Catholic priest.  WHAAAAAT??? 
You may well ask.  Ms Masterman makes no excuses for the oddball characters with which she populates her story:  as unlikely a good guy as Carlos seems, he is the antidote to the toxicity that Brigid ingested during her long years as a very successful agent – she’s mad about him and has been very careful not to reveal too much about her former life bringing in the baddies;  she worries that if he finds out how far she had to go to rid society of these lowlifes,  this aesthete, this paragon of goodness would find her deeply unworthy of his love - her former boyfriend (a cello-playing father of two) found her frightening in the extreme, and told her just that:  ‘I can’t have you round my children.’
So:  Brigid has been successfully evasive about details of her past and she and Carlos are enjoying their retirement and first year of marriage immensely – until an old, unsolved case comes back to haunt her;  the one case of which she is not proud.  The Route 66 murders.
Some years before, young women hitchhikers went missing on Route 66;  they were eventually found, brutally murdered  in a distinctive fashion:  their Achilles tendons were cut so that they couldn’t run, and after death one of their ears was sliced off as a souvenir. 
Brigid used to be good at disguising herself as bait for murderers, but age has caught up with her and she must train a replacement agent, one who looks deceptively young and vulnerable – as she used to. 
All goes according to plan until young agent Jessica falls into the killer’s trap and becomes a victim herself, causing utter devastation among her colleagues, particularly Brigid – she trained her, after all.  Jessica’s body is never found – until a trucker is stopped with a mummified body in his rig and a remarkable desire to confess to all the crimes.  His confession has the ring of authenticity because he knows details that were never publicly revealed, but there is something off – something that doesn’t ring true to Brigid, who has been unofficially consulted by an ambitious young FBI agent bent on growing a reputation of her own.  What could it be?  How can they shake this sick trucker’s desire to tell all in exchange for life imprisonment instead of the death penalty, especially as all the authorities are crowing with delight, thankful that they can at last close the book on seven gruesome murders.
And this is what lifts this debut novel above the usual run-of-the-mill thrillers:  a villain you never see coming;  dead ends and dry gulches galore before our gal does the business;  and a protagonist so far beyond youth and glamour that she should be a poster girl for every woman ‘of a certain age’.  Brigid Quinn has no illusions about her abilities, or otherwise:  she’s a straight arrow and finds her targets with intelligence, guile and doggedness.  Ms Masterman has created a character so smart, endearing and funny that I hope this is only the first of a series of novels about Brigid and her Holy Hubby – not to mention his twin pug dogs, given to him by his wife Jane as company for him after she died of cancer.  I ask you:  how can you resist?  Highly recommended for all dedicated thriller readers.

Donnybrook, by Frank Bill

‘Donnybrook’ is the name given to a clandestine weekend meeting in Indiana of bare-knuckle fighters competing for a huge money prize, run by the enormously rich and sadistic Bellmont McGill and his daughter Scar.  (she has none, but should:  she’s ugly.)  Brawlers from near and far pay $1000 entry fee for the doubtful privilege of getting their brains loosened and their noses knocked to the back of their heads, and to a man are fuelled to the gills with booze and meth to keep up the insane courage needed to risk their lives for $100,000, the payout for the last man standing. 
This is a tale that drips blood, gore and body fluids from every page;  Mr Bill paints a bleak and desperate picture of a part of the country where jobs have disappeared and hope has gone with them, leaving only the temporary drug-induced euphoria that masks the squalor and despair covering lives like a film of grease – oh, it’s a hard read and if this is an authentic depiction of life in some parts of today’s America, then the American Dream has become a nightmare and the Apocalypse is nigh. I do hope that the graphic detail of meth manufacture and ingestion has not been personally seen by Mr. Bill;  if he did happen upon any of the places he writes about, he was lucky to get out alive! 
There is a suitably motley cast of characters and more than enough Good Ole Boys to start an Army:  meet Jarhead Johnny Earl, who robs the local gunshop of precisely $1000 so that he can have a shot at winning the big prize.  He wants a new start with his beloved Tammy and two little ones;  siblings Angus and Liz,  ruthless meth-cookers on the run after a double murder;  Fu (this is true!) a Chinese assassin on the trail of Angus and Liz for a $20,000 debt they indirectly owe his master Mr Zhong (they murdered the man who owed the money so the debt is now theirs);  Deputy Sheriff Whalen, in pursuit of Angus for killing his nephew;  and Purcell, an old visionary whose predictions reveal themselves with chilling accuracy.
It comes as no surprise to the reader that all of these evildoers meet at the Donnybrook and the climax of this story is so predictably chaotic, violent and bloody I’m still wondering how I got through to the end of the tale in one rational piece.  I can only surmise that it’s because there are rich seams of wonderful, anarchic humour in Mr Bill’s Novel Noir and the dialogue is as down-home funny as I’ve read anywhere i.e. ‘Head-bang this made-in-China Motherf-cker, Pete!’ yells a character called Elbow, under attack from Fu.  He doesn’t survive; in fact it’s amazing that there is anyone left standing in them old Piney Woods, but from the way the story finishes there will be a sequel.  The question is:  will we all be brave enough to read it?    

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