Wed
Sep 24 2014 11:30am

Fresh Meat: Strong Darkness by Jon Land

Strong Darkness by Jon Land is the sixth mystery featuring the gunslinging Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong (available September 30, 2014).

I used to read Robert Ludlum novels and marvel when I reached the end of them that every word of fiction I’d just read could have happened. That’s exactly the way I felt when I finished Strong Darkness by Jon Land. Describing it brings to mind all kinds of book-review clichés, but it’s a really good book so I won’t bore you with that.

This is the sixth book in a series that features a character who’s resilient enough to carry it through many more books. A fifth-generation Texas Ranger, Caitlin Strong is beautiful, mean, a great shot, and hates bad guys enough to pursue them to their finish. She embodies her last name. To her boss’s deep regret, she like gun battles and frequently finds herself dodging bullets and emptying clips.

These books are complicated but realistic. Working alongside Caitlin is Cort Wesley, the love of her life, and the two of them have a deep parental love for Cort Wesley’s two sons, Dylan and Luke. Dylan plays a big role in this book, even though he’s away at college at Brown University (Jon Land’s alma mater).

Land has woven such an incredible number of plot threads into an intricate and beautiful tapestry it’s difficult to describe the plot in a few sentences without it sounding lame, and, trust me, it’s not lame. First, there are two important stories going on—the present-day case that Caitlin is working and the historical case that her great-great-grandfather William Ray Strong worked with the infamous Judge Roy Bean. Both stories are entertaining, violent, and connected.

This is how we meet Caitlin’s grandfather, William Ray Strong:

“You can take it as the drunken word of Cole Varney,” the cowboy said, toasting him with his beer, “the only word I know.”

Varney watched William Ray hitch his barn coat back to reveal his Colt Peacemaker.

“What are you, some kind of lawman?” Varney asked, drawing a collective chuckle from those crowded at the table with him.

William Ray pulled the barn coat further to reveal his Texas Ranger badge, forged out of a Mexican Cinco Pesos coin. “I suppose you could say that.”

The chuckling seemed to freeze midbreath, the whole bar going silent. William Ray noticed men who’d eased their hands a bit closer to their holstered pistols draw them back, leaving those hands in evidence for him to see.

“And you, Cole Varney,” he resumed, drawing close enough to stand over his suspect, “are under arrest for the murder of Han Chu.”

“Was that the Chink’s name?”

William Ray kicked the chair out from under Varney and he hit the floor hard, blowing out some breath that stained the air with the stench of stale onions and eggs gone bad. Light spilling from dusty tin lanterns strung overhead flickered at the impact that coughed a dust cloud into the bar’s already grimy air.

“Doesn’t matter if he was a Chinaman or the goddamn man from the moon,” William Ray said, jerking Varney to his feet by the scruff of the neck. “You confessed to murdering him, sir, and the awful stench you give off should be enough to arrest you on its own.”

“I didn’t confess to nothing. Anybody hear me confess to something?” Varney asked anyone in the bar who was listening.

To a man, including those at his table who’d kept to their chairs with their hands remaining where William Ray Strong could see them, nobody answered Varney’s question one way or another.

“You’re under arrest, sir,” William Ray said, snapping his handcuffs into place on the suspect’s wrists.

“Who the hell are you?” Varney spat, clinging to his bravado.

“A Texas Ranger, and if that ain’t enough for you, we can each try our guns and see who’s still standing after the smoke clears.”

I immediately got a picture of Gregory Peck in my mind, in those wonderful westerns I watched as a child. Okay, maybe as a teenager. Anyway, this guy is a strong, speaks minimally, and always in control.

Normally, I’m not happy when there are a lot of flashbacks in a novel. But Land has a skillful way of popping these looks back into the story just when they’re needed. They not long or overpowering, they just move the story forward and give Caitlin another link to her past and hopefully a way to find clues in the present. Land also uses historical truth to validate what people are doing in the present, and his literary license is used so well, it’s all easy to believe.

After we’re introduced to William Ray and Judge Bean, we find Caitlin confronting a group of religious zealots who are carrying picket signs and chanting at the funeral of a young soldier.

Though she hates the motives of the righteous reverend and his apostles, Caitlin knows nothing should get in the way of their right to free speech. As always, democracy has its burdens. But she handles their brand of intrusive protest in a humorous but effective way.

That’s probably the least bit of action in this book. Dylan is attacked, and Caitlin heads for Rhode Island with Cort Wesley to discover what happened and go after who did it. This one act of violence opens a door to an incredible story that will keep you biting your nails until the end. The three are separated when Caitlin is called back to Texas to investigate the killings of five Chinese women that mirror the case her grandfather and Roy Bean were working on.

When Caitlin whittles down the facts and hones in on the man she believes is her suspect, she is ordered to stay away from the man due to his connection and work done with Homeland Security. Li Zhen is well-known and powerful, and his company is bringing 5G Internet to America, a big step the intelligence community feels is essential to staying on top of the work of the country’s enemies.

While Caitlin is bumping her head against a government wall, Cort is digging through the chaos to find out why his son was almost beaten to death. As expected, his work will intersect with Caitlin’s but in a baffling and troubling way. She is trying to find a serial killer, and he is seeking to destroy the network that sought his son’s death. Their enemy becomes the same.

I loved this book because I never knew what I was going to find when the story turned another corner. I read two to four books a week, so it takes a good writer to surprise me. Land did with this story. There were several occasions where I found myself sitting with my jaw dropped because I was so surprised at what happened and how it meshed the story even better.

Land also has a real gift for the cliff hanger. If you don’t want to read more after this scene, mystery may not be the genre for you.

Cort Wesley was left shaking his head. His oldest son having been away for over two months now, since late August, left him with only the good memories and allowed him to push the perpetual conflict between them into the far recesses of his mind. Cort Wesley figured it was just part of the process of the son growing up and the father not ready to let go. He’d had so much time to make up for and Dylan’s high school years just hadn’t lasted long enough.

“You said her name was Kai,” Cort Wesley persisted. “What else can you tell me about her?”

Dylan tried to meet his gaze.

“You still seeing double?”

The boy nodded, not looking at him as he took the shot lifted off the porn video in hand again. “Where’d you get the picture?”

“One of your friends in that fraternity printed it out for me after showing us the video.”

“Us? Caitlin saw it too?”

Cort Wesley nodded. “But it’s all right, ’cause she’s a Texas Ranger. I figure the next question she’d ask you is when exactly you first spotted this girl, Kai, you recognized from the video.”

“At Viva.”

“That be the place across from Spats, both managed by your friend Theo.”

The boy’s eyes widened, then narrowed again when holding them that way made his head hurt. “Theo? Is there anyone at Brown you didn’t talk to about this?”

“I was with a Texas Ranger, remember?”

“Where’s Caitlin again?”

“She had to go back home for some Ranger business. I already told you that.”

“When?”

“A while ago.”

“I don’t remember. I got a concussion, don’t I?”

“That’s what the doctor says.”

Dylan shook his head deliberately. “Avoided one all season in football and look what happens. Sucks.” He paused and steadied himself with another series of deep breaths. “I want to call Caitlin.”

Cort Wesley handed him his phone. “Give it your best shot, son.”

Dylan held the handset, smirking. “I thought you were gonna get a new one.”

“What’s wrong with what I’ve got?”

“Dad, it’s a piece of shit. You don’t even have any apps on it, except that flashlight one you never use.”

Cort Wesley was left staring at his oldest son as if the boy had just landed from another planet. “How do you know I don’t use it? I can’t wait until you have kids of your own, son.”

“Why?”

“So you can share in my misery.”

Dylan had the phone pressed up against his ear now. “Very funny, Dad.”

“You see me laughing? I want to hear more about this Kai.”

“Like what?”

“You met up with her the night you got jumped.”

“That’s right.”

“She texted you after your meetings and she met you at Spats.”

Dylan nodded.

“Your pals in the fraternity had the feeling she was in trouble or something, that you were trying your best to help her.”

“She was in trouble for sure,” Dylan affirmed and extended the phone back toward Cort Wesley. “Straight to voice mail.”

And that’s when all the lights in the hospital went out.

Strong Darkness took me to places I’ve never been. It was an intense, gripping story that I didn’t completely figure out until I read the last page. There’s nothing predictable, things seldom turn out the way you anticipate, and the fight/battle scenes are borderline supernatural but follow the rules of fiction enough to make them believable.

However, I have to warn you that you’ll look at ordinary objects you use every day in a much different way after reading this. Oh, and one more thing, keep the light on, the darkness is pretty strong.

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Leigh Neely is a former journalist and editor who writes fiction with her writing partner, Jan Powell. The first book of “The Connelly Witches” miniseries from Harlequin E is available now. Witch’s Awakening by Neely Powell is available as an ebook and will soon be an audio book. Witch’s Haunting comes out in late fall, and you can also get True Nature at all book sites online. Leigh also writes for the popular blog, WomenofMystery.net.

Read all of Leigh Neely's posts for Criminal Element.

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