The Unwilling, by John Hart*****

This one was worth the wait! John Hart’s new historical mystery, The Unwilling, is simply magnificent. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the galleys; this book will be available to the public February 2, 2021. Those that love excellent fiction should get it and read it.

The French family is troubled. The father is a cop in their small hometown in North Carolina; the mother, Gabrielle, has some sort of emotional disability. Bipolar? Anxiety disorder? Who can say. All we know is that her nerves are shot, and she loses it quickly and easily. The couple have three sons; the first two are twins, but Robert, the golden one, is dead, killed in Vietnam. Jason went to ‘nam too, and rumors say that he killed 29 people there in his first year. He is rumored to be bad news and has already done a stretch in prison. That leaves the youngest, Gibson, known as Gibby. Both parents are possessive of him. As adolescence sets in, it begins to chafe, the way he is overprotected, and now that he’s a high school senior, he’d like a little more room.

And then Jason is released, and he comes home. He isn’t welcome at the family manse, so he stays elsewhere, but he wants to spend some time with Gibby before he blows town.

The title is a chewy one. Initially, I associate it with the daredevil stunt that some high school seniors—mostly boys—consider a rite of passage. It involves jumping into the quarry from a very high bluff; make the jump wrong, and you’ll be dead when you land. Gibby doesn’t jump. Jason does.

The basic framework of the story has to do with crimes Jason has done time for, and others that are committed while he’s in town. A girl he’s spent time with is viciously tortured and murdered, and many in the community make assumptions. But in reality—and we know this early on—he is being framed by a man known as “X” in prison. Truth be told, X is actually the weakest element of the story, and he’s mostly superfluous, but since this is supposed to be a thriller, the thread involving him adds suspense, particularly at the end. The climax is something else again.

But the most interesting aspect of the narrative has to do with the family, and by extension, one could say, all families. Over the course of time, a family’s story is told, and eventually labels develop. The small town setting in a pre-internet era makes this especially true, since most people’s interactions are limited to those that live in the same vicinity. And so, Robert French is the tragic hero, cut down in his prime while fighting for his country; Gibby is the baby of the family, a good kid, a good student; and then there’s Jason. Not long after the murder, Detective French speaks with the medical examiner about Tyra’s murder, and he asks the ME what would make someone do this; not just murder, but torture and mutilate. And the ME tells him that although it’s not the accepted clinical expression, “People like that are born wrong.”  And though French is reluctant to say such a thing about his own son, he wonders if he should accept this as true. His wife, mother of all three sons, tells him, “Gibby is all that matters.”

But as the story progresses, we see that there’s more to this story; a lot more. Jason has simply given up trying to defend himself. Refusing to do so is why he spent time in prison. When the world gives up on you, why try? To be sure, he’s no innocent, sad-eyed puppy. He’s seen things, and he’s done things. But people are complicated, and when we try to drop them into neatly labeled boxes, we shut ourselves off from learning details that don’t fit the picture we’ve painted.

For me, this story was less about solving a crime, and more about the characters. I was thrilled that the main story wasn’t about Robert. I’ve read too many novels lately that focus on the dead sibling, and it’s becoming trite. But Hart is a seasoned author, and he doesn’t drop into that well-worn channel. Instead, we see why various well-crafted, complex characters think and act as they do. Reading it, I find myself thinking about my sisters, and the small ways in which we developed labels as children and young adults; happily, none of us was labeled the bad seed, but if we’d been boys…? And I think also of my own children. For a brief, terrible time, I saw my eldest as that person, the one dragging his sister into trouble. Later, much later, I learned it was actually the opposite, but he figured it was better if one of them was still in good standing, and so he took blame that wasn’t entirely his. It’s not a great feeling, but at the same time, my own experience made this story more interesting, and I’m willing to bet there are a great many other readers that will read this book and think about their own families as well.

There are appealing side characters here, and the most compelling is Gibby’s best friend, a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who wants to make good.

So who is the unwilling one? Is it Gibby, for not jumping off the bluff? Is it Gabrielle, for not entertaining the possibility that her son, Jason, deserves more than she is willing to give him? Is it Detective French, for not being willing to completely give up on him? You can take this title in a lot of different directions.

Hart’s literary prowess shines here. It’s not always an easy read; during the more violent patches, I took it in small bites. I received both the print and audio galleys, and I moved back and forth between them, leaning more toward the audio, whose reader, Kevin Stillwell, does an outstanding job; but at times I forgot something, or wanted to check a detail or highlight a quote, and then I dove into my digital review copy. You can go either way without fear of disappointment.

Highly recommended.

Pride of Eden, by Taylor Brown*****

Taylor Brown is quickly becoming one of my favorite novelists. His 2018 book, Gods of Howl Mountain is one of my ten best loved books among the 1,300 I have reviewed since 2012, so I have been waiting for this book, and it does not disappoint. My undying thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale today.

Pride of Eden is a wildlife sanctuary in Georgia, owned and run by a Vietnam vet named Anse. Anse has PTSD related to his service, and his most searing memory is of the loss of a service dog that sacrificed its life to prevent a soldier from being killed by an explosive device. Anse is a complicated character with a possible death wish, but this aspect of his character is never overplayed, and after a haunting, visceral passage at the beginning, it becomes a subtle quality that runs beneath the surface, as it likely would in real life.

Anse accepts animals of all sorts; some come from illegal private zoos, or from private owners that are surprised that their adorable lion cub has grown up to be a wild animal. But secretly, he is also a vigilante. When he sees an animal in need of rescue whose owner plans to keep it—or sell its dead body for parts—he creeps in at night and liberates it.

Tyler is the preserve’s veterinarian, a buff no-nonsense woman who is also Anse’s girlfriend. My favorite passage involving Tyler is when a man comes to see Anse, and Anse is in a mood and wants Tyler to get rid of the guy. Tyler pushes back; it might be important, and the man has traveled a long way to see him. Anse grudgingly tells her to “Send him in,” and Tyler fires back that she is “not your fucking secretary, Anse.” At the outset of the story, Tyler does not know that Anse does not acquire all of his animals legally.

The third main character is Malaya, who comes to the sanctuary looking for work:

  “What do you want to do?” he asked.


    “What are your qualifications?”

“Third infantry, two tours in Iraq. Honorable discharge. Then I contracted in South Africa, tracking ivory and rhino poachers.”

“You catch any of them?”

She uncrossed her arms, buried her hands in the pockets of her shorts. Anse could see her knuckles ridged hard against the denim. “Yes,” she said.

Malaya is complex as well. But I love Malaya not only for her meaty internal monologue, but for the things she isn’t. Most male authors (and some female ones too) wouldn’t be able to resist these tired elements, and once again I admire Brown’s respect for women, which shows vibrantly in the way he frames his characters. Malaya is not romantically interested in Anse, nor does she try to mother him. Malaya and Tyler are not jealous of one another, and they do not compete. Both characters are buff and intelligent, and at no time do they have to be rescued by men. As a result, I could appreciate this story as it unfolded without the distraction of stereotypes or overused, sexist plot devices. Neither female character is motivated by sexual assaults in her past.  

The other two characters are Horn, another damaged vigilante that collects wild animals, and Lope, Anse’s driver, who helps him move large animals.

This is not an easy read. It will attract Brown’s fans, of course, and also animal lovers; yet those same animal lovers have to wade through an awful lot of sorrow, as the story is rife with tales of animal abuse. Brown’s purpose, apart from writing outstanding fiction, is likely to raise awareness of poachers that kill endangered animals for profit, and of private game reserves that send semi-tame animals to an enclosure so that wealthy ass hats can bag some big game, take that animal’s head home to hang in the den.

 Yet there’s nothing at all here that is included to be prurient or sensationalistic; every word has a purpose, either to develop a character or drive the plot forward, or both.

My emotions run the full gamut as I am reading, and this is a sign of excellent literature. I laugh out loud a couple of times; at others, the prose is so painful that I have to walk away for awhile and then come back. But I am never sorry to be reading it. The ending is so deeply satisfying that I want to high-five someone, but alas, I am reading it alone.

Once again, Brown’s novel is destined to be one of the year’s best reads. I highly recommend it.

Hard Rain, by Peter Abrahams ****

hardrainHard Rain is a nail-biter of a suspense novel, part mystery and part espionage thriller, and Peter Abrahams is a writer with credentials as long as your arm, including being Stephen King’s favorite American suspense novelist. After reading this skillfully woven tale I can see why. My thanks go to Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media for the free galley. It was one wild ride!

Hard Rain is set in the period after Vietnam, but prior to the time when satellites revolutionized our means of communication. Our opening scenes involve a mysterious, sinister fellow named Bao Dai. His murder of a stranger for no apparent reason sets the reader on edge, and the surreal tone the writer lends is better than anything I have ever seen. In fact, the writing style and pacing are so brilliant that until I stumbled across some unexpected but fairly glaring problems in the last quarter of the book, it was headed for a five star review and a home on my favorites list. But more about that later.

Our chief problem, once the initial set up flashes past us, is that Jessie’s daughter is missing. Her ex-husband, Pat Rodney, took her for the weekend. They were going to go fishing, and then she was going to be returned to Jessie in time for a birthday party. But they never made it to the fishing boat, and there are some ominous messages on Pat’s answering machine. Kate never came home, and Jessie has no clue where she is.The cops aren’t all that concerned, seeing it as a routine custody violation that will surely be resolved on its own, but Pat has never been responsible, and has never ever wanted full custody; Jessie just doesn’t think he would snatch her. Her best friend, Barbara, is a no-holds-barred lawyer, and she’s ready to get down to business, but she is killed by a hit and run driver as she goes to cross Jessie’s street, wearing Jessie’s yellow rain slicker. That one person was the entire cavalry; now Jessie is on her own.

It just doesn’t look good.

The trail takes Jessie to Bennington College in Vermont. Pat was originally from Vermont, and she thinks he may have gone home, or at least contacted his family. And once there, all hell breaks loose. A particularly harrowing scene involves a chase scene in a subterranean tunnel beneath the dormitories.

A parallel storyline that blinks in and out has to do with an aging spy named Zyzmchuk, who is about to be sent out to pasture. Keith and Dahlin, a snappy, younger pair of more business-like spooks, plan one further adventure for “Zyz” in the hope that when it’s over, he’ll either be dead or leave quietly. These two, for some reason, made me think of Haldeman and Ehrlichman, the two sinister advisers that did President Nixon’s bidding at times, and at other times kept him on a leash to keep him from acting crazier than he already was. Maybe it’s because I am also reading Tim Weiner’s galley about the Nixon presidency. I have to say that of all the myriad characters that wink in and out of this complex, deliberately disorienting story, Keith and Dahlin are my favorites.

The imagery, with water and falling being constant themes throughout this spooky story, is among the best I have read, together with a deceptively simple sentence pattern that creates suspense in something of a house-that-Jack-built fashion. I still can’t figure out how he does it. It’s uncanny, and really absorbing.

So, even with the problems toward the end, is this creepy novel worth your time and money? Assuming you enjoy this sort of story, I have to say yes, it is. In fact, this writer won the Edgar earlier in his career, and that early title is now on my to-read list. I probably won’t find it as a galley, which means I have to hunt it down at the library, or fish around for it on my annual pilgrimage to Powell’s City of Books. So what follows was not enough to cross this writer off my A list, by any means. And now if you read further, there are going to be spoilers, so if you want to read this yourself and not know how the ending shakes out—or at least bits of it—this is the place to quit reading. And for those skimming, I will make it more obvious:


We are 75% of the way into the story. Jessie has been beaten by bad guys, and has been rescued, medical attention sought by our very own spook, Zyzmchuk. He is keeping an eye on her partly for her own good (awww), but also so that she doesn’t get in his way, because her mission interferes with part of his. He sets a guard to watch her when he has to go out, but otherwise, he sits in a chair in her hotel room there in New England, keeping watch over her. She is a sweet young thing still; he is retirement age.

And so there she is, with a nasty concussion and a number of other bad injuries, worried about her missing child, and so what would be more natural than inviting this duffer, a man as ancient as I am now, to come climb in bed with her so they can have great sex?

What the hell?

“’Shit,’ said Dahlin.
“’Fuck’, said Keith.’”

Okay, that quote belongs much earlier in the book (and more than once), but I like it here just as well, so I have taken the liberty of inserting it. Because really…what is that about? Did someone in marketing decide the book needed some gratuitous sex in order to sell properly? Go figure.

At the 85% we have to wonder whether some bad editor also cut out a chunk of story that should have been more judiciously and lightly pruned, because when Jessie sneaks out of her hotel room to try to find her daughter, she returns to find that Zyz, the guard Zyz posted while he stepped out, and all other apparent spooks and body guards have decamped. We, the readers, know that the guard in her hotel room was killed after she snuck out, but we don’t know where the hell Zyz went. And the next time we run across him, he is strolling into his office in Washington as if nothing untoward ever occurred. There is never any real explanation for this bizarre leap in the plot.

All that said, once again, I would happily read more of this author’s work. His capacity to create a frisson of chilly suspense far outweighs the Hollywood-like choice to dump the hot chick in bed with the old guy, as well as what may have been an editor’s error toward the conclusion.

This book will be released digitally July 28, and you can get a copy anytime you like now. What better way to spend a vacation, or even a staycation? Just stay out of the water, and definitely keep an eye on your kids. You won’t want them out of your sight while you read this story!