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Into the Black Nowhere by Meg Gardiner

into-the-black-nowhere-by-meg-gardiner.jpgI’m not seeing it. I try and try – I’ve read both of Meg Gardiner’s UNSUB series – and I’m not seeing what the attraction is. And a shit load of people supposedly like these books. I say “supposedly” because, as I said, I’m not seeing it.

Gardiner begins Into the Black Nowhere with the hero of UNUB, Caitlin Hendrix, joining the famed Behavioral Analysis Unit of the FBI. As Gardiner over explains:

The Behavioral Analysis Unit was a department of the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime—a branch of the Critical Incident Response Group. Its mission involved investigating unusual or repetitive violent crimes. Critical incident response meant that when a hot case came to the BAU, it acted, and fast, because time was limited and people were in danger.

Seriously? Does anyone crime fiction reader of any age no know what the BAU is? It may seem that I’m nitpicking here, but how about this, “UNSUB was the FBI’s term for the unknown subject of a criminal investigation.” It goes on and on like that.

Forgetting about Hendrix’s accelerated training to go from a Portland-area sheriff’s office to the famed BAU, Gardiner’s dependence on the reader’s suspension of disbelief only gets worse. From a town of over 4,000 where we are told 70% of the kids go to the public high school which three of the victims graduated from none knew each other. All five victims were between the ages of 19 and 26. The math doesn’t work out. I’m befuddled. Where as Don Winslow blurbed it to be an “unrelenting page turner”, I was relenting with every page I turned.

Of course Hendrix is the only one on the team, a team of experience FBI agents, that has the tropey gut feel and identifies the serial killer before anyone else. The BAU comes up with a list of seventy-five suspects and the agent in charge lets Hendrix spend her valuable time targeting her suspect. Oh, she turns out the be correct of course, but really? A rookie FBI agent knows more than everyone else. This sort of bullshit continues page after page.

Gardiner is probably a wonderful person which is the only reason why I can imagine the likes of Winslow, Steve Hamilton, and Lisa Scottoline love this book. Stephen King blurbs, “Simply put, the finest crime-suspense series I’ve come across in the last twenty years.” Really, Stephen, really? What about Stieg Larson or Michael Connelly or Ian Rankin or Tana French or … fuck it who cares. The UNSUB series is not that good and King should be ashamed.

I pushed my way through Into the Black Unknown so you won’t have to. You should stay away from this one and I’ll be staying away from the third installment as it is going to happen just like we’ll all wake up tomorrow to another fucked up tweet from Donald Trump. My disdain for this book is so great, I really have to question your tastes if you loved it. Severe, I know, but as I said, I’m not seeing it.

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The Driver by Hart Hanson

 

the-driver-by-hart-hansonI’m single for all the usual reasons plus a couple of ancillary snags and detriments, for example: an eye-catching scar on my forearm left by an obstinate pit bull whose windpipe I was forced to (honest to God!) wrench out in panicked self-defense—please, no grief about the humane treatment of animals. Killing a dog is not a meet-cute anecdote on a first date (especially if the woman in question is an animal lover), and yet due to the prominence of the dimpled scars on my arm it has never not come up, unless I wear long sleeves, in which case, this being Los Angeles, the woman in question assumes I’m a junkie. I could go for Gila monster attack as an explanation, but then I’m lying on a first date, which, as any relationship expert will tell you, does not bode well for the future of the relationship.

– Page 5, Hart Hanson’s The Driver

How much you like The Driver depends in large part on how much you like being inside the head of its hero, Iraq War vet turned LA limousine driver Michael Skellig.

You might find this sort of hipster hyper-verbalism funny and appealingly glib, a nice coating of character oil to smoothly move the gears of this thriller’s busy plot. Me? It wore me out after a while, and I started to develop a picture in my head of a young, drunk Steve Buscemi type nattering at me for hours from the neighboring barstool.

But perhaps I’m not being fair, for Skellig is no bug-eyed twitchy twerp, but a badass Special Forces combat vet now slumming it as the owner of a low-rent limo company even though his mother is a prominent state assemblyman. (As his lust interest, an LA police detective, puts it: “Oh, Skellig, aren’t you just the sweetest vanilla cupcake with shit frosting?”)

And Skellig can be funny when he’s being pithy. Or at least his mother can, as witnessed in this flashback exchange:

“You’re seventeen so it’s understandable you like Ayn Rand. Adolescent boys respond to her simplistic ranting because Ayn Rand herself was basically an angry adolescent boy who had all the answers but felt like nobody listened to her.”

“You’re a Republican. How can you not like Ayn Rand?”

“She’s bullshit you grow out of, like costume parties or thinking farts are hilarious. I mean, go ahead and like her now, Mikey, but have the grace to look back in a few years and be embarrassed.”

After saving the life of gangsta-rapper mogul Bismarck Avila from a professional hit at a high-profile event, Skellig gets drawn into the deeper undercurrents of the threat against his gregarious but ego-riddled client. As per the thriller formula, the threat is plural, and the threateners are not just criminals but cops, and the more Skellig doesn’t know who to trust, the more he’s forced to go it alone to keep himself, Avila and his motley crew of damaged war-vet employees out of jail—or worse.

Hanson is a TV writer whose credits stretch back nearly thirty years, and whose most prominent credit is as the creator of the FOX series Bones, based on the popular forensic-detective series of novels by Kathy Reichs. The Driver is his debut novel, released at age fifty-nine, and it shows off his strengths as a screenwriter: solid scene construction, slick pacing, snappy dialogue, and distinctively colorful characters. (In a nice bit of trope inversion, the woman Skellig is in love with not only resists him, but really doesn’t want him. She’s not playing hard to get.)

And Hanson has a nice light touch with action, though some of the get-out-of-an-impossible-jam situations stretch the bounds of suspended disbelief, as even Skellig seems to cheerfully concede: “When one is obliged to dispose of a murdered body, one faces a Gordian knot wrapped around Pandora’s box, which contains Occam’s razor.”

But, speaking of tropes, they’re in abundance. The quirky, sexy, semi-damaged, semi-antisocial military vet/knight-errant type is so prolific in thriller fiction today that maybe their creators should just pool their royalties, as they all seem to ride, and maybe even read, each other’s drafts. But they are popular, and they’re popular for a reason that exists beyond the bounds of fair criticism, and so I won’t criticize too heavily just because they’re not my cup of hardboiled coffee.

But, that Steve Buscemi voice….

I will say this: There were times when I was tempted to bail on The Driver. But I hung in there each time, and after a while I realized it was no longer an effort to do so, and to me that represents a laudable level of authorial skill that some bigger names in the thriller business don’t have. Hart Hanson knows how to tell a high-spirited story, and he knows to kick into a higher gear when he most needs to, and that’s what matters most.

Eagle Harbor Books: Buy