Rob Thy Neighbor by David Thurlo is the 3rd book in the Charlie Henry Mystery series (Available August 16, 2016).
“Bone-cracking” action is queued in David Thurlo’s Rob Thy Neighbor—the latest Charlie Henry mystery—though perhaps not quite presented in the way I was expecting. In Chapter One, I was hit by the word “Blam!”, an onomatopoeia meant, of course, to express a sudden loud noise.
Well…POW! there’s enough phrasing and violence to make a Gotham superhero feel at home, but many times I felt like I was perusing the screenplay based on the book. With sharp, declarative sentences of people diving, running, jumping, etc., I didn’t feel so much in the action, but on the sidelines watching the actors rehearse their lines.
Charlie is having a barbecue with best friend Gordon and fellow chums Gina and Nancy, when a home invasion happens right next door—in broad daylight. The invaders crank up a loud action movie to quell the raucous of the helpless couple being victimized, Sam and Margaret Randal. But, luckily for them, Charlie and his friends are an A-Team assault force unto themselves, managing to divert the attack and forcing the baddies outside and on the run. In what seems intended to convey cinematic, rapid-cut fight sequences, the author writes:
Gordon dove to the grass. Charlie dropped to one knee, raised his pistol, but spotted a jogger coming down the street just beyond the van. “Get off the street!” he warned as the van pulled out, accelerating with squealing tires. The runner swerved for the sidewalk, diving onto the grass beyond just as the van raced past. Gordon, who'd jumped up and was giving chase, stopped and checked out the jogger, helping the young woman to her feet.
The home invasion is rehashed, in a manner of speaking, several more times when Charlie and Gordon repeat their unexpected adventure to co-workers Jake and Ruth and then observe part of it from a security camera feed. Going through it once and then a second is more than enough, but subsequent variations makes for a played-out storytelling approach.
Charlie and gang have to answer questions for the police, and it’s evident that lead Detective DuPree has a respect for Charlie and Gordon, having dealt with them before since the duo regularly find themselves tangled in solving crimes when they are not running their pawn shop. Their co-joined history includes classified work that involved the “snatching of high-value targets for the CIA intelligence-gathering operations,” which comes in quite handy: Charlie and Gordon are hardened veterans used to wrangling with the vilest side that Albuquerque life has to offer.
Gina, an attorney, interviews Margaret and then relays to Charlie the woman’s version of what happened to her and her husband:
“One of the robbers who'd been with Sam ordered the other two to take Sam to the van. Then he grabbed Margaret by the arm. When he started to push her into the bedroom again, Sam yelled and broke free for a second. Margaret screamed and grabbed at the guy's ski mask, scratching and trying to poke him in the eyes. The mask came off, apparently. She kicked him in the groin and ran through the kitchen and out the back door, heading for the back gate and the alley.”
Anton Chekov is accredited with saying, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” I've never been one to gripe about show versus tell (there are some classic 19th-century English adventure novels that do all the action through beautifully constructed telling), but as Gina explains what Margaret and Sam had to contend with, it left this reader with a shopworn storytelling experience—the plot is well thought out, but has to be ventured second hand.
The home invaders are anything but subtle, attacking Charlie and Gordon while driving down the road. But, before a single bullet is squeezed off, we are informed that they “were armed now; it was going to go down a little different this time.” And, so it does, as Charlie shoots “a 9mm slug in the center of the idiot’s chest,” putting the other two lawbreakers on the defensive. I knew our heroes were not in any danger because the author had already telegraphed his moves, resulting in no buildup, no climax.
Rob Thy Neighbor clips along at golden-era, pulp-action frenzy. Not in terms of style, but in terms of pacing…it felt like a kissing cousin to Lester Dent’s Doc Savage, which I admire. At every other turn (chapter, that is) there is another conveyor-belt threat awaiting our protagonists, and if that sounds like formula, then you would be right—but done with much conviction and passion.
Having encountered countless shows and books with stereotypes of Native Americans, it’s rewarding to finally see characters in fiction like Craig Johnson’s Henry Standing Bear and Mr. Thurlo’s Charlie Henry, who are more than just sidekicks for wisecracks and pivot plot changes but, as in the case of Charlie, are heading the battering ram to bring perps to justice.
Part of the Navajo Nation with a father who’s a retired judge and a school teacher mom, Charlie balances nicely with Gordon, who was educated on the mean streets of Detroit without a strong nuclear family as a fail-safe. The bond these two share really shines through, along with the respect the author feels for the police department, which is also a refreshing shift.
Mr. Thurlo writes about Charlie’s PTSD, as a result of his perilous work, with careful thought. A good example is when Charlie is having a dream that he’s back in Afghanistan. The US Department of Veterans Affairs provides a conservative estimate that 20 out of 100 Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) vets have post traumatic stress disorder, and Mr. Thurlo respectfully addresses the issues of a character who, if true to life, would be in a private, tortuous hell. It’s not done here to be cool or to glamorize war, but to reflect the real horrors, to balance the characters. This is where the cartoon violence falls away, where the writing excels and surges from the page.
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David Cranmer aka Edward A. Grainger is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP books and author of The Drifter Detective #7: Torn and Frayed. He lives in New York with his wife and daughter.