Book Review: Stone Cross by Marc Cameron

Stone Cross by Marc Cameron opens in a remote Alaskan village where Deputy US Marshal Arliss Cutter searches for a stone-cold killer amid a hotbed of corruption, lies, and long-buried secrets. 

As a boy, I loved playing cops and robbers with my brothers. We ran through the pine trees, shooting finger guns, and wearing paint-thinner-scented masks made of rags from my father’s work. We fought and yelled, and my youngest brother got hurt and cried every time. I was always the cop. My inspiration, without fail, was the “good-guy” characters from spaghetti westerns.

As an adult, I stopped running through evergreens and drifted into reading, mostly crime fiction. The good-guys are more nuanced and the bad-guys’ motives are often noble. However, that is not always what I am after. Occasionally I want to be transported back to the 1980s, back to cops and robbers, and back to the smell of paint thinner. Marc Cameron’s new novel Stone Cross took me back.

Marc Cameron is well known for taking over the Jack Ryan novel series for the Tom Clancy estate. Independent of Clancy, Cameron’s Jericho Quinn thrillers are well-received. He is also the author of an outstanding group of westerns under the Mark Henry pen name. A quick search shows Cameron’s background. He was a cop, became a Deputy U.S. Marshal, and then the Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal for the District of Alaska. He is a black-belt in jujutsu, motorcycle explorer, and scuba diver. Basically, Cameron has the ideal background for this type of writing. I was excited to see what Cameron could do in the mystery genre, and he did not disappoint.

Stone Cross is set in Alaska.  The scenes are well-constructed and center the reader with a strong sense of place. An example from the text:

There was no moon. The wind blew harder now, coming off the freezing river and adding a sinister layer to the darkness. Lengths of split spruce reflected like bleached bones in the hard beam of David’s headlamp as he took tentative, creeping steps down the hill.

The novel opens with a prologue establishing our soon-to-be kidnapping victims. It is followed by an exciting arrest showing our hero, Arliss Cutter. Here is a description of Cutter as seen through the eyes of a newly arrested heroin addict:

The big Marshal looked over him across the back seat, sun-bleached hair mussed like a surfer who’d been chillin’ on the beach. His name was Cutter, and if his stony expression held anything, it was remnants of a disappointed sigh, like when you let your grandma knows college wasn’t in the cards- or told your mom that you’d just burned down her house. Deputy Cutter said nothing, but his disgust was apparent in narrowed eyes.

Soon Cutter, and his well-presented second in command, Lola Tearaki, go to the titular small Alaskan village of Stone Cross. The Deputy Marshals are there, on paper, to arrest a man for a minor crime, not something that would normally rise to the level of the U.S. Marshals. However, they are really there to protect a threatened Federal Judge.

This protection detail leads to Cutter investigating a murder. The town’s remote location means there is not a strong local law-enforcement presence. The U.S. Marshals, with their broad statutory authority, need to help. The murder leads to a kidnapping. The action scenes are among the best I’ve read, for example:

Filled with rage, Cutter plowed straight, letting a sloppy haymaker from Twig slide off his shoulder. Moving close, he delivered a staggering head butt, nearly peeling Twig’s nose down the front of his face. The outlaw doubled over, staggering, but kept his feet. Cutter snapped in a lightning-fast jab, followed by a right uppercut, intent on hitting the man until he got heavy. The outlaw fell backward, turning over to push himself up on all fours and receiving a boot to the ribs for his trouble.

In addition to the murder and kidnapping, there is a strong subplot focused on the local school principal’s past. Lola leads this subplot and comes across as a robust character in her own right. The novel’s arc leads to an explosive and violent conclusion. The culmination effectively wraps up the situation. With that said, the ending is crushing and literally had me tear up.

As far as what I didn’t like, it was limited and related to personal-preferences, not poor writing or story-telling. First, the novel featured a prologue, which is not something I enjoy. However, this prologue was interesting enough that if it had been included later in the novel I would’ve been onboard. Also, the point-of-view shifts were numerous. I personally like a more limited approach. Those were my only two gripes, both minor, and both related to my specific taste.

The writing is strong and clean. Cameron’s story-telling is top-notch. His non-writing professional experience shines through. For many authors, their fiction feels like fiction; Cameron’s does not. His prose is obviously informed by experience. I enjoyed the heck out of this book. If you want to read an exciting mystery, with elements of a thriller, and a hero reminiscent of classic westerns, Stone Cross is a sure thing. I could smell the paint-thinner.

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