By Steve Weddle
First, some housekeeping.
The first season of the DoSomeDamage podcast, 7 Minutes With, is in the books. Expect to see the second season in early 2019. Chatting with Chris F. Holm, Holly West, and Jedidiah Ayres about music, television, and movies (respectively) was a blast.
As we've done for the past decade, DoSomeDamage is taking a couple weeks off around Christmas. We'll hang a sign up in a few days and be back in early January, provided everything is still here when we get back.
If you haven't done all your Christmas shopping, here are a couple books about kidnapped children you might enjoy.
Joe Clifford's The One That Got Away is just out from Down & Out Books. You may know Clifford from his shorts or for Junkie Love or for his Jay Porter series or for his anthology editing. Or for his golf game. Or for his own story.
Clifford's Jay Porter series consists of Lamentation, December Boys, Give Up the Dead, and Broken Ground.
In The One That Got Away, Clifford writes with a confidence I hadn't seen in his earlier work. It wasn't that the earlier books lacked anything. They were all good, all solid, all highly recommended. The new book steps it up a notch or two. This is the sort of book you should see front-facing in your local bookstore. This isn't the former junkie writing a mystery novel about a former junkie solving a mystery. This is an author crafting a story, carving out sentences to carry you through the novel, from character to character, story beat to story beat, compelling the reader forward.
Publisher's Weekly calls the book an "unsettling psychological thriller," which is fine, in as far as it goes.
In the early 2000s, a string of abductions rocked the small upstate town of Reine, New York. Only one girl survived: Alex Salerno. The killer, Ken Parsons, was sent away. Life returned to normal. No more girls would have to die. Until another one did.
It’s been seven years since Kira Shanks was reported missing and presumed dead. Alex Salerno has been living in New York City, piecemealing paychecks to earn a livable wage, trying to forget those three days locked underground and her affair with Sean Riley, the married detective who rescued her. When Noah Lee, hometown reporter with a journalistic pedigree, requests an interview, Alex returns to Reine and Riley, reopening old wounds. What begins as a Q&A for a newspaper article soon turns into an opportunity for money, closure and—justice. The disappearance of Kira Shanks has long been hung on Benny Brudzienski, a hulking man-child who is currently a brain-addled guest at the Galloway State Mental Hospital. But after Alex reconnects with ex-classmates and frenemies, doubts are cast on that guilt. Alex is drawn into a dangerous game of show and tell in an insular town where everyone has a secret to hide. And as more details emerge about the night Kira Shanks went missing, Alex discovers there are some willing to kill to protect the horrific truth.
In the modern vein of Dark Places and Mystic River, The One That Got Away is a dark, psychological thriller featuring a compelling, conflicted heroine and a page-turning narrative that races toward its final, shocking conclusion.
In this book, Clifford isn't relying on addiction to build Alex Salerno. He's digging more into her character, her specific trauma. She was broken before the kidnapping, that crime causing another kind of damage to her.
Clifford uses the town to tell the reader about Alex, how the town might seem different, but underneath is just as awful as ever.
Driving back to the precinct, Alex watched the naked trees, stripped of their cover, zipping past, bare and exposed. Some things had changed about their hometown, it was was true. But in between the new Chili's, Arby's, and PF Chang's was the same rundown crap she'd grown up with....Here, Clifford goes on to describe the dirty bars, rundown liquor stores, and so forth. But it's the action in this description that sells it. Alex isn't simply describing the buildings. She's passively watching as they pass her. She isn't driving through town as much as the world is passing by her. And, yet, she's being pulled back. It's an impressive use of conflict Clifford carries on, just under the surface, throughout the story. While lesser writers focus on bar fights and torture porn, Clifford is using the scenery and movement to build a character as he moves the story along. It's top-shelf stuff.
Another new book about a kidnapped teenager is Bryan Gruley's Bleak Harbor, out from Thomas and Mercer.
Danny Peters was something of a trial even before he disappeared. Lacking much of an affinity for other people, the autistic teenager was interested mainly in dragonflies, computers, and Wallace Stevens. Now he’s gone off with someone who promised him a milkshake, and his mother and stepfather are agonizing about how to raise the quixotic ransom of $5.145 million by the impossibly tight deadline. Both of them have reason to worry about their ability to pull together in their hour of need. Pete Peters, who owns a medical marijuana dispensary, is hiding his off-again professional relationship with Slim, the go-between who supplied him with better product for less money than his legal sellers until all of a sudden he stopped. Carey Peters, newly promoted executive assistant, finance, at Pressman Logistics in Chicago, allowed her boss, Randall Pressman, to take her out to dinner to celebrate and then slept with him, then refused his encore invitations and responded to his attempts to trash her at work by stealing some sensitive documents that reveal his own illegal activity and demanding a hefty payoff for her silence.
Working variously at odds with each other and the authorities they’ve defied the kidnapper by calling, Carey and Pete try to raise the ransom by leaning on Carey’s hateful mother, monstrous town matriarch Serenity Meredith Maas Bleak; Oly O’Nally, the boss who fired Pete from his brokerage firm; and, of course, Randall Pressman for the cash. They all turn out to have agendas of their own. So do Danny’s ex-con birth father, Jeff Bledsoe, Pete’s employee Dulcy Pérez, and Pressman’s henchman Quartz—not to mention Lt. Katya Malone, of the Bleak Harbor PD, and Allen Locke, of the FBI.Modern bookstores have sections for mystery, for literature, for celebrity cookbooks. They could just as easily devote a large section of their floorspace to novels about stressed-but-brilliant mothers caring for a special needs child while the father is mostly useless. I've read roughly 87 of these types of books in the last two years. They're very popular in the domestic thriller circle. The mother is smart and capable, balancing her care-giving with her professional strength to hold together her family, which includes a special needs child. Meanwhile, the father is overwhelmed, seeking solace in drugs, alcohol, and lovely women who often end up corpses or blackmailers. Now, some of these have been done quite well. Those are the exception in terms of quality, though they all seem to sell just fine. With that in mind, I have to admit that the first few dozen pages of Gruley's new novel had me worried. Which, as it turns out, was unnecessary.
Gruley doesn't short any of the characters in his novel, despite the fact that a dozen of them take center stage at various parts of the story. Pete and Carey Peters's son is taken. While they do work together to find him, they also work separately, down various tracks, many of them competing with each other. Gruley's novel is twisty and mesmerizing, and I can't begin to imagine how he organized the different threads throughout.
Pete and Carey each have secrets that this kidnapping threatens to expose, and they each work to navigate back through those secrets as they try to save their son. The shifting narratives create clean cliff-hanger points, a structure that helps to keep this book moving. The reader hops into one narrative, seeing all the dark places in a character's past that look close to exploding, only to shift in the next chapter to someone else, someone else with secrets to hide. It's the sort of "ok, just one more chapter" book that readers tend to devour.
If you're ordering these or any other books this holiday season, don't forget your local indies. I dig Fountain Bookstore in Richmond and One More Page in Northern Virginia.