Prior to a book’s release, the writer’s friends start promoting the book with superlatives, some of outrageous. A few pages in, you realize that the book is good, but it is not great, or worse, the book has been fluffed by a pro. Let’s pause and forget what I just wrote because everything you have heard about Jordan Harper’s She Rides Shotgun (Ecco) being one of the best crime fiction books of the year is absolutely true. Full stop. Harper’s debut novel will be talked about all summer and throughout the 2018 award season. I know I should try and temper your expectations of She Rides Shotgun but it is that good.
Harper’s She Rides Shotgun opens in Pelican Bay with “Crazy” Craig Hollington, a lifer in Pelican Bay and the chief of a white prison gang, planning a hit on an entire family. In these first two pages Harper begins to dazzle the reader with paragraphs that begin with “He had men for a mouth”, “He had men for blood”, “He had men for feet”, “He had men for eyes”, and “He had men for hands.” And like the prayer it mimics, the chapter ends with “His will be done.”
We then meet Polly an eleven-year-old different from all her school mates, bright beyond belief, and an outcast among her peers.
She didn’t read her schoolbooks, which were so boring and stupid it made her want to yank out chunks of her own hair. She read what she wanted to read. She learned more during recess than she ever did in class. She swore to herself never to do homework again.
Even in the short paragraph, the beauty of Harper’s writing becomes evident. “She swore to herself never to do homework again.” In lesser hands, the sentence would read, “She swore to herself that she’d never do any homework again.” There are no excess words. “She read what she wanted to read” could be a throw-away sentence, but it has an elegance in its appearance and its sound, the repetition of sh, r and w. Page after page, Harper’s prose is polished and pleasurable.
Polly is immediately kidnapped by her father Nate. She knows she should not be going off with her father, she does so willfully, “The urge to run, the urge to scream for help, she shoved them down where she shoved down everything else.” And the road trip with a criminal and child pursued by drug-dealing Nazis and the police kicks off.
Harper decided to tell She Rides Shotgun from the perspective of Polly. Other perspectives make brief appearances, but it is Polly’s voice which makes She Rides Shotgun a brilliant read. In the end, She Rides Shotgun is one of those books where the character finds the author and not the other way around.
If you have any friends that don’t read crime fiction — yeah, I don’t get it either— and you want them to read this book, mention that Harper used to produce the Simon Baker TV show The Mentalist. That was one of the hooks that got my wife to begin to read this book. The book cover by Suet Yee Chong could not be more appealing.