I’ve read enough series crime fiction to know it’s probably really tough to write. Once you’ve penned your first crime novel where do you take your character next? Do you serve your readers up another identical adventure in your next outing? Or do you try to take you character some place different? Or do you do the extremely hard thing and let the plot develop from what’s happened to your character so far? For “Out There Bad, his second crime novel featuring ex-marine turned strip club bouncer Moses McGuire, Josh Stallings does just that and I’m so glad he did. Because it makes “Out There Bad” one of the rare sequels that’s better than the first novel. That’s not faint praise either Stallings’ first novel “Beautiful, Naked, and Dead” was a hell of a read.
When “Out There Bad” begins Moses is a changed man because of his experiences in the first novel. He’s no longer drinking or suicidal. That doesn’t mean he’s not haunted by demons though. In “Out There Bad” Moses is wrestling with an invisible monster we all struggle with, loneliness and the desire to be love. He wants to be a better man and he desperately wants to find someone to make him believe that he can become one. He believes he finds such a person when he encounters a Russian stripper who captures his heart and his imagination. Unfortunately for Moses the stripper has been enslaved by ruthless Russian mobsters.
Moses doesn’t let that stop him though. When it comes to love and relationships he’s “rescuer” type and he’s just as ruthless. I’m a rescuer type as well. So I was hooked. I knew Moses was about to get into a heap of trouble and his temper and penchant for violence was about explode. I was worried about the guy, but I rooted him on and cheered as he went to war.
So Moses enlists the aid of his friend, the Armenian bad-ass Gregor, and goes to war with an arm of the Russian mob. An early victory though turns into a crusade against one of today’s most despicable and least talked about crimes, human trafficking. Stallings tackles the problem in a realistic, powerful, and unflinching way. In that way “Out There Bad” reminded me of some of the best novels by Andrew Vacchs.
Stallings should also be applauded for incorporating a lot of new elements into “Out There Bad” and handling all them extremely well. In “Beautiful, Naked, and Dead” the author took you all over California and Vegas. In “Out There Bad” you begin things in Moses’ rough and tumble corner of Los Angeles, but Stallings expands the scope and scale of things by making them international. The book features chilling and realistic feeling depictions of Russia and Mexico as well.
The writer also does some great new work with point of view. All of “Beautiful, Naked and Dead” is told from Moses’ point of view. The bulk of “Out There Bad” is still told from Moses’ point of view, but Stallings also works in other compelling perspectives as well like that of a scared thirteen year old Russian girl and a vicious razor wielding assassin out to snuff the life of anyone who profits from the sexual exploitation of women.
Stallings takes all those elements and blends them together to serve up a rip roaring, powerful, bloody, and haunting sophomore crime novel. It’s also wrapped up in a great way where every character pays the price for their actions. Some series writers would hit the reset button at the end of their second novel, but Stallings isn’t interested in going back to the status quo and I’m glad. It made his second novel better than his stellar debut novel. I can’t wait to see where he takes Moses McGuire next.
I try to avoid any types of spoilers when I do a book review, but sometimes that’s just not possible. Like when you’re reviewing the second book in a three part trilogy and the action picks up right where the first one left off. That’s the case with writer Duane Swierczynski’s latest crime novel, “Hell & Gone” and I’m about to review that book. So consider this a spoiler warning. In fact, if you haven’t read “Fun & Games,” the first book in Swierczynski’s Charlie Hardie trilogy, stop what you’re doing and go read it right now. You won’t regret it. Don’t worry we’ll wait . . .
Ok, everybody ready? Just in case one last big SPOILER WARNING!!!!!!
All right then, away we go! When we last left ex-Philadelphia Police consultant and tough guy extraordinaire Charlie Hardie he had saved the host of an “America’s Most Wanted” style program from a group of incredibly stealthy assassins dubbed the “Accident People” for their knack for making their crimes looks like accidents. As it turns out though the “Accident People” are just foot soldiers for a large and very powerful organization, an organization that’s not very happy with Charlie Hardie.
“Fun & Games” ends with Hardie falling into this organization’s custody and in “Hell & Gone” they enact their vengeance upon Hardie by sending him to a strange, underground, ultra secure prison. Complicating things even further is the fact that upon his arrival at the prison Hardie discovers that he’s the facility’s new warden and if anybody escapes from the prison on his watch everyone inside will die.
So there’s a lot of stuff going on in “Hell & Gone” and all of it is pretty awesome. One of the most interesting things is the very nature of the prison itself is a mystery. Its true nature is revealed near the end of the novel and the revelation is a fun mix of science fiction, classic prison movie elements, conspiracy stories, and academia.
Another great thing is that Swierczynski uses the set up of the prison to reveal even more about his protagonist. We got to know and root for Charlie in “Fun & Games” and in “Hell & Gone” we get to know even more about his past and what makes him tick. We get to see how he holds up under a great amount of physical and mental oppression and best of all we get to see him fight back. That’s because Swierczynski know all the best prison stories involve jail breaks.
You also get to learn a lot more about another character who only played a minor role in “Fun & Games,” Hardie’s FBI contact Special Agent Deke Clark. Clark spends much of “Hell & Gone” searching for Hardie and dealing with the enigmatic and powerful forces behind his disappearance. Clark’s reactions are believable and he’s a very likeable character that you enjoy spending time with.
The supporting cast of “Hell & Gone” is also populated by several interesting new characters especially the inmates and guards of the prison Hardie is trapped in. All of them have intricate and interesting back stories that are revealed as the novel unfolds. I can’t confirm this but based on the character’s names and some of their stories it feels like Swierczynski includes some fun homages and Easter eggs to his fellow crime writers and some of their characters.
So reading “Hell & Gone” was a lot of fun. The only thing that seemed out of place was an opening scene that didn’t look it had any relevance to the larger plot, but towards the end of the novel Swierczynski comes back to it and weaves that scene into his larger story in a very compelling way.
In Summary “Hell & Gone” is the best kind of sequel, one that’s even better than the first chapter in the story. It’s pacing, action, and characters were all great. As a long time fan of Swierczynski’s work I think it’s his best novel to date.
So the bar is set pretty high for the third chapter in the Charlie Hardie trilogy, “Point and Shoot,” which arrives in March. Swierczynski gives the novel a hell of a set up with the final pages of “Hell & Gone” and even if it’s only half as good the previous novel’s it’s bound to be a lot of fun.