February Books That Didn’t Make Into the Whodunit Column, Part One

The mystery lineup for the February issue of issue of BookPage is truly exceptional: a new Robert Crais novel featuring Joe Pike; the highly anticipated follow-up to Noah Boyd’s 2010 thriller, The Bricklayer; the new Jack Caffery novel from bestselling British author Mo Hayder; and the English-language debut of Japanese suspense icon, Keigo Higashino. The sad thing was that I had to limit the selection to four, when there were at least a couple of others that deserved inclusion. Both are first novels for their respective authors, and yet both have the feel of books from well-established writers, as if the reader were dropping in somewhere in mid-series and meeting characters well known by scores of appreciative fans.

First up is Urban Waite’s The Terror of Living: Phil Hunt is a rawboned cowboy of middling years, who, with his wife, runs a small and struggling horse farm in rural Washington state. There’s not enough money in horses to keep body and soul together, though, so he augments his income with some cross-border heroin running from time to time. He seems a natural choice for this job, as his knowledge of the mountainous borderlands is second to none. His opposite number on the “right” side of the law is Deputy Bobby Drake, also a fairly skilled mountaineer. Drake’s father, once a deputy himself, languishes in prison for drug-running, so Drake understandably has a boulder-sized chip on his shoulder where illegal substances are concerned. He makes it his business to take Hunt down.

He almost succeeds. Hunt’s partner is apprehended, his horse is shot out from under him, and his drugs are intercepted by the cops, but amazingly Hunt makes good his escape. His employers are none too happy with his performance, however, and they recruit him for a gratis offshore run. What Hunt does not anticipate, though, is the method for moving this latest batch of heroin into the US: a double-handful of small latex spheres located somewhere in the digestive tract of Thu, an extremely skittish Vietnamese girl.

This story line in itself would be enough to sustain a good novel. But then Grady shows up, and all bets are off. Grady is a stone-cold killer, hired by the bad guys to do some “wet work” in retribution for the drug deal gone bad. Thing is, Grady’s idea of problem solving is just to take all the players off the board, regardless of which team they play for. This he does with utmost dispatch, taking out several of the crooks and a couple of cops in the bargain, until the only opponents left standing are Hunt and Drake. Thus, in a strange turn of events, cop and criminal find themselves unwitting (and certainly unwilling) allies against a ruthless and unpredictable adversary.

Both setting (Washington state) and principal character (Deputy Bobby Drake) will appeal to fans of C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett series. Drake is a taciturn fellow, a straight arrow not much given to humor. Like Pickett, he is driven by an innate goodness of spirit, always trying to balance family and work, and to reconcile the points where “good” and “lawful” are somewhat at odds with one another.  

PS: tune in tomorrow for part two of “February Books That Didn’t Make Into the Whodunit Column”, featuring P.G. Sturges’ darkly comedic Shortcut Man.

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