When one is in an airport bookstore after spending ten hours on a plane with no reading material, still looking at another few hours before reaching one’s final destination, one doesn’t take chances. One buys multiple books, in different genres, to ensure that the remainder of the journey will pass smoothly. If the first novel fails to please, there is always another.
In the above paragraph, I am the One. Among the books I purchased that fateful day was The Reapers: A Thriller, by John Connolly. Yep, they put the genre right into the title, so there could be no confusion. That might be a good thing, now that I think about it, because the ‘thriller’ part of the book is a pretty simple revenge-begets-revenge storyline without too much actual thrill. Sure, there’s some suspense (not that much, though), along with plenty of violence and action — people are thrust into bad situations and have to dig themselves out. Ultimately, though, the narrative seems to exist not to thrill but to provide the author a framework to explore the soul (or lack thereof) of people who can kill a stranger in the blink of an eye. Are such men born or made?
Connolly has written several stories featuring a detective named Charlie Parker; in this installment the crusty ex-detective plays a subordinate role as the author focuses on Louis, one dangerous mo-fo to be sure. Gay, black, soft-spoken, likes country music, frighteningly cold-blooded. Louis is unusual even among killers; his ego makes no demands, even when he is motivated by revenge. He doesn’t need to see the person die, he doesn’t need to make it poetic, doesn’t need to gloat, as long his target’s heart stops beating. (Although the author glosses over one purely egotistical touch that allows the bad bad guy to get away at one point.)
How did Louis come to be this way? It’s a long story, or a short story, depending on how you look at it. The short version: some people are just born that way. The long version is told over several long flashbacks. As a young man Louis is witness to a particularly horrific hate crime. More crimes against his family follow. After Louis takes his revenge he is discovered and nurtured (or at least trained) by men who work for The Government (or do they?). Louis is retired now, the only one of his group to walk away without being killed. Or so he thought. (insert dramatic sting)
To be honest, after a while the long backstory sections started to feel redundant, as if Mr. Connolly was himself unsure of his thesis that just because Louis was a cold-blooded killer doesn’t mean he’s a bad man. At least for me, he was selling past the close. I got it about two flashbacks before Connolly was ready to trust me that I got it, and move on with the story. The rest started to feel defensive.
Naturally to bring out the best in Louis in this story he must be confronted by a rival of similar pedigree. Turns out that he and his rival have each failed to kill the other on previous occasions. Not a bad set-up by Mr. Connolly.
One of the best things about this book: No one is safe. Even people you like, some little more than innocent bystanders, are fair game. There’s no guarantee that everyone will live happily ever after. That’s critical if you aspire to the title ‘thriller’, and in this case you better not let your guard down until you’ve closed the book. Maybe I have to take back what I said about about it not having much thrill.
Still, did I really have to know the whole backstory of the hired goon who gets whacked? Three pages of backstory for his half-page of action? No, I don’t think I needed to know that. Did I need the detailed description of a rifle, just to have the bad guy choose the other rifle? No, that just came off as the author showing off. Should someone who goes into such great detail about firearms refer to ‘clips’ in an autoloading pistol? Absolutely not.
This sort of story thrives on detail, but let’s keep it to the details that matter, please, and make sure our terminology is correct. Louis would never say ‘clip’ when he means ‘magazine’, and neither should the author.
Overall, however, the rather straightforward plot was very satisfactorily balanced by the character study of the central personality. He is a complex person, a perfect storm of intelligence, physical ability, and near-complete dispassion toward his victims. Was this a thriller? I can’t say I was on the edge of my seat. Wasn’t thrilled, per se. I was interested, and I was wrapped up in the action, however, and I really liked the central characters and they way Connolly introduced them to me. Overall, a pretty good read.
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