The tough as nails gunslinger is a staple of action, crime, and thriller stories. That’s because observing them from the distance of a story is insanely cool. Deep down inside we wish we could be like them; cool, lethal and unstoppable. These people fascinate us because of what they can do, but what’s sometimes even more fascinating is what they can’t do. The truth of the matter is these heroic men of violence are broken. To be so dangerous they had to give up a part of themselves that makes them function in a normal world. So to watch them wrestle with a normal emotions like love is just as cool as watching them mow down the bad guys. In Robert Crais’s new novel “The Sentry” you get the best of both worlds.
The Sentry stars Joe Pike a character I first got to know as a supporting player in Crais’s Elvis Cole series of detective novels. Pike, an ex-marine, ex-cop, and sometimes mercenary served as both Elvis’s unofficial partner and his muscle. He was the Hawk to Cole’s Spencer and like Robert B Parker’s character Pike was equally fascinating. He was a strange, dangerous, but extremely loyal and decent man. He was a heck of a character and readers got to know him even better in “The Watchmen”; Crais’s first novel where Pike was the protagonist and Cole was the supporting player. Pike once again stepped into the spotlight in Crais’s last novel “The First Rule”. With “The Sentry” Crais pens his third and perhaps best Joe Pike novel yet.
At the beginning of “The Sentry” Pike stops some gangbangers from assaulting a local restaurant owner and because of this act he meets the owner’s niece and is smitten. So much so that he vows to protect the women and her uncle. Pike’s vow get him involved in something bigger than a confrontation with local gangbangers though. That’s because the girl and the uncle are not exactly what they appear to be. They have a dark past and it’s about to come gunning for them, unless Pike and Elvis Cole can stop it.
What makes Crais’s Joe Pike novels so compelling is that Pike is not like the readers, but he’s still a very human character. He’s good at the art of war but not the art of interpersonal interaction. So in “The Sentry” it’s very cool to watch Pike try to process his attraction to the restaurant owner’s niece, Dru Rayne. It gets a hold of him and causes him to do some dangerous and careless stuff. It also hurts him quite a bit on an emotional level. So it’s refreshing to know that even expert mercenaries have girl troubles.
“The Sentry” is a Joe Pike novel, but Elvis Cole plays a big part in it. More so than the other two Pike novels, and you can tell Crais is getting hungry to write another novel where Elvis is the star. Cole’s scenes in “The Sentry” are just as cool as Pike’s. Crais shows that Elvis too is haunted by the spectre of love. In a couple of especially poignant scenes the detective reconnects with the love of his life, a woman he had to let go. Probably the most compelling things about the Cole scenes though are his interactions with Pike. The Pike-Cole friendship is at the heart of “The Sentry”. In fact Cole is cast in an interesting role here. Where Pike is usually protecting him, here Cole must work hard to protect Pike from his dangerous attraction to Dru Rayne.
Another major supporting player in “The Sentry” is the insane hitman known as Daniel. In several portions of the book the readers get to see things from Daniel’s chilling point of view. In these scenes Daniel is often accompanied by two other companions. They are companions that no one else can see or hear, but Crais lets the reader draw their own conclusions about the nature of Daniel’s imaginary friends. They are only addressed in the scenes from Daniel’s point of view. So they are both believable and creepy.
Crais also populates “The Sentry” with several other interesting supporting players. To me the most interesting was Detective Button. He’s a cop who at first seems like a cliché. He hates Pike because he’s violent and threatens to bring him down. During the course of the story though he works with Pike and actually helps instead of hindering him. You even get a scene from Button’s point of view where he tries to make amends for some of his shortcomings earlier in the novel.
“The Sentry” succeeds in the plot department too. It’s full of twists and turns and the characters react to them in believable and poignant ways. Those twist and turns eventually lead to a climatic explosion of violence along LA’s Mullholland Drive.
So “The Sentry” is another great novel by Robert Crais. It’s highly entertaining, things happen that cause the protagonists to change and grow, and you get some interesting insights to the human condition. Not many writers can do that with series fiction. They usually get comfortable but, like fellow LA crime writer Michael Connelly, Crais isn’t interested in giving readers a recycled tale where his protagonists are going through the motions. He wants to give us a novel that’s exciting and matters in the larger story of his characters, and “The Sentry” certainly” does both of those things.
It’s always exciting to discover a great new author. Last spring I came across a mention of a book called “Jack Wakes Up” by Seth Harwood. The book’s cover featured glowing blurbs by three of my favorite authors: Michael Connelly, Duane Swierczynski, and Megan Abbott, so I gave it a try and I was glad I did. “Jack Wakes Up” is an action packed, enormously fun, pulpy crime novel. After finishing the book I discovered that Harwood had published two sequels and another novel as free audio books on his website. Free is the best kind of price, but audiobooks aren’t exactly my thing. So I anxiously awaited the release of Harwood’s next print novel.
That wait came to an end this Christmas for me when I received a copy of Harwood’s new print novel “Young Junius” as a gift, and it was definitely worth the wait. Like “Jack Wakes Up” , “Young Junius” is an immensely enjoyable crime novel, but it features a grittier, more realistic tone. Where “Jack” was fun and exciting, “Junius” was powerful and poignant. That darkness and realism makes it a better book
“Young Junius” takes place on the mean streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts circa 1987. The titular character, Junius Posey, is 14 years old, but thanks to a growth spurt he’s already 6’3. Junius and his older brother, Temple are low level figures in the area drug trade which has exploded with the introduction of Crack cocaine. When the book opens, Temple is dead and Junius is out to find his brother’s killer. Junius’s quest becomes complicated early on when he kills a local drug dealer to protect his best friend, Elf. This leads to Junius being marked for death by the dealer’s associates, but instead of running like his mother suggests he follows his best lead in his brother’s death to the heart of the city’s drug trade, three massive public housing towers controlled by two rival drug gangs.
When Junius reaches the towers he seeks out one of the drug lords in the hope that she’ll be able to provide him with the identity of his brother’s killer. The drug lord instead exploits the teenager’s quest for revenge and uses him as a pawn in her war against her rival. What follows is a haunting and compelling explosion of violence that reads like a mash-up of the 1991 movie “New Jack City” and the fourth season of “The Wire”, which was the phenomenal television program’s best season.
Another reason “Young Junius” is so fascinating is because Harwood populates the book with a rich cast of eclectic characters like Roughneck, a mid level drug dealer with an interest in martial arts who is slowly becoming disgusted with the violence and misery of the drug trade. Or officer Gary Johnson, an African American uniformed police officer who endures an enormous amount of physical punishment when he stumbles onto the violent happenings in the towers.
Harwood also uses pacing and tone incredibly well in “Young Junius”. The bulk of the book takes place over one day and as that day progresses events in the towers spiral out of control and more and more people are drawn into the violence. The day ends with an intense violent gun battle on the top floors of one of the Towers. Things are often grim and tense, but Harwood doesn’t want his story to be oppressively bleak so he inserts moments of humor when appropriate.
“Young Junius” is a sort of prequel to “Jack Wakes Up” and it works in that capacity too. Because I like to keep my reviews as spoiler free as possible I won’t say how, but it will be immediately obvious to those who have read “Jack Wakes Up”. Readers who haven’t read that novel won’t be lost though
So I highly recommend “Young Junius”. If you’re looking for a powerful and compelling crime novel that explores the physical and emotional dangers of violence and vengeance look no further.
Tragically it seems like every generation has a defining moment of collective horror. For my grandparents it was the bombing of Pearl Harbor. For my parents it was the assassination of President John F Kennedy. And for me it was the events of September 11th. I still remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard what was happening. It’s been almost a decade since that tragic day so I don’t often think about it as much as I used to. I imagine for the people of Manhattan the spectre of that day is always lurking somewhere in the back of their mind especially if they stroll through the city’s financial district where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once stood. But what about the people in other parts of New York? How did they cope with that day? What impact did it have on them? In his graphic novel “9/11 Heartbreaker” writer-artist Craig Staufenberg looks at the the way the titular day haunts and effects a resident of Buffalo New York. The result is a story that is somewhat problematic but still manages to have some very compelling moments.
In “9/11 Heartbreaker” an unnamed female protagonist and narrator meets a guy one night in a Karaoke bar who catches her fancy. They strike up a conversation and the guy reveals that his occupation is documenting people’s memories of September 11th. This has a profound impact on the protagonist and causes her to reexamine the history of her home town.
My first problem with “9/11 Heartbreaker” might just stem from what I’m used to as a reader of comic books. The standard full length comic story is 22 pages. “9/11 Heartbreaker” is only 16. So to me the term graphic novel feels like a misnomer. This is really a short comic story and for me “9/11 Heartbreaker” was just a little too short. It felt like if Staufenberg had expanded the story by even a few pages it could have a lot more emotional impact and we could have gotten to know the main character and some of her friends a little better
It also feels like at certain points in the story Staufenberg forgets he’s telling a story that involves images and words. In graphic novels and comic books the images should be just as if nor more important than the text. There are some sequences in “9/11 Heartbreaker” that are are almost all text though and they caused me to drop out of the narrative a bit.
This doesn’t mean there aren’t some things Staufenberg does very well in “9/11 Heartbreaker”. The writer successfully creates a compelling, haunting tone throughout the whole narrative. It feels like all of the characters are dealing with the ghosts of the past. And in the latter half of the story when the protagonist digs into the past of her hometown, you get a sense that you’re catching a glimpse of a world that doesn’t exist anymore. It was very interesting.
I especially enjoyed the section of the story where we got glimpses of what Buffalo is like now and got to visit some monuments to its storied past. Staufenberg really brought the town to life in a very real way.
So as a short graphic novel “9/11 Heartbreaker” has some very interesting moments, but doesn’t really work for me. It does have the potential to become an excellent story though. So if Staufenberg ever decides to tweak or expand his narrative I’d be very interested in the results.