Thursday, August 10, 2017


Now in his seventh outing with the enigmatic Victor the assassin, Tom Wood is starting to write himself into a bit of a corner. On the one hand, if he leaves Victor as a completely amoral killing machine who never changes, then he's stuck writing the same book over and over.  Even with Wood's skills, that's going to wear out not long after the half-dozen mark -- Andrew Vachss' career criminal Burke changed little and became repetitive, going downhill after book #8 with an exception or two.

But if Victor grows as a character and regains his humanity or develops a conscience, then eventually he's going to get to a place where he doesn't want to stay as a pure killer for hire and the series hits a stop, like Barry Eisler's John Rain. Mark Greaney seems so far to have crossed this divide with his Gray Man series, but he's only one book into the rehabbed version of his killer for hire, so we have to wait and see.

The other alternative is to go forward and then back up, which is unsatisfying and unfortunately the choice Wood makes in The Final Hour as he puts Victor back on a collision course with Raven, the female assassin he was uneasily allied with in The Darkest Day. Victor finds himself with a much higher profile than he likes, especially as it concerns people with the desire and ability to end his career and his life. So he decides to go as far underground as possible with a permanent solution -- have Raven kill him and then he can sink far enough below the radar to re-establish himself.

Naturally, it's not that simple, because Raven has her own share of enemies with whom she has to deal, and before the story winds up, both predators could find themselves each other's prey into the bargain.

Wood's smooth style is as elegant as ever; although this is most definitely a rough-and-tumble adventure narrative he never falls back into stodgy action-writer prose or techno-babble. But in addition to the above-mentioned hurry up and slow down problem, the situations Victor and Raven face quite obviously have more layers, waiting for subsequent novels to be uncovered. That's fine in itself, but it leaves Hour murkier than it should be. If those later books furnish the confrontation it sets up, that will help the series out in that area, but Wood will still need to figure out how to keep his character's arc from flatlining.
Jonathan Grave succeeds at his hostage rescue missions because he doesn't let anything else get in the way of the goal of getting the PC ("Precious Cargo") away from danger and back to safety. Other people, other issues are not his concern, no matter what he may feel about their situations. So even though something's gone wrong with the mission to rescue a kidnapped federal agent in Final Target, he's got backup plans and he and his partner "Boxers" won't have any great trouble getting out of the mess they're in.

Until he runs into the orphanage with a bunch of kids and Grave realizes he's the only chance they have of escaping torture and death at the hands of the local drug lord pursuing Grave, Boxers and their rescued hostage. If the kids don't go with him, they'll all die. But if they do, then they might still die, only they'll bring the three men down with them.

In this 9th Grave novel, Gilstrap has a good handle on the roles his characters play in their adventures. Grave and Boxers quip and snipe at each other, Boxers sees an uncomplicated black-and-white world where anything he doesn't think is his problem isn't his problem, Grave often doubts himself over the lines he's crossed and violence he's committed in the names of his various missions. The action set pieces hold their tension and keep the novel's pace nice and quick, and the plot hangs together through the required suspense thriller twists.

Target is more or less an extended chase scene, with some interludes back in Washington, D.C. as Grave's other team members try to unravel the mystery of the snafus that started this mess. Although sometimes the physical goals and the different groups involved get a little fuzzy, the presence of the orphans offers a new wrinkle that makes Target one of the stronger entries in the Grave series.
The first four Myron Bolitar novels were mostly fun romps that touched the sports agent turned crime solver and opened up some old doors in his past but never left any real new marks. But 1998's One False Move left him broken personally and professionally, so 1999's The Final Detail finds Myron on the beach. Literally, on a remote Caribbean island with a woman he's just met. No one, including his business partners and his family, know where he is. But when his friend Win sails up to the beach in a yacht, Myron knows there's trouble he can't run from any more.

The trouble is the murder of one of Myron's clients, Clu Haid, and the arrest of his business partner, Esperanza Diaz, for the crime. Esperanza has hired an attorney herself and won't let Win or Myron even try to help her. But Myron can't stay away and begins his own investigation, even though it becomes clear through the arc of the story that he is not yet back to his old self. His judgment and thinking still impaired, Myron may find himself not only the target of a police investigation but also of the forces that targeted Clu -- who won't be satisfied at just arresting him.

Coben uses his complicated story to begin to try to grow Myron up a bit -- his willingness to cross legal and ethical lines in pursuit of what he considers justice has consequences, and he begins to see them the more he looks at things in front of him as well as those in his past. Although the tone remains fast and funny, deploying both quips and quirky characters at a rapid pace, Coben opens up the consequences of the kinds of action Myron has taken and tries to move his characters deeper into a universe with actual morality and context. It's murkily done, as Myron's self-doubt veers close to moping and as a villain asserts a moral privilege that most of the rest of the book has said is in no way warranted.

Detail marked a different direction for the Bolitar books as Coben tried to mix the upbeat swashbuckling of Myron and Win's earlier work with some darker and more poignant themes. He had mixed success with the new recipe, hitting some very high notes but also some serious clunkers. As an early step on the new path, Detail isn't firm enough yet to be either, and winds up a middling outing with the world's only crime-solving sports agent.

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