One More Body by Josh Stallings is the third book in the Moses McGuire noir series (available November 5, 2013).
Character is king in all forms of fiction, especially crime fiction. It's the reason why we follow intrepid detectives, world weary criminals, and driven tough guys into nightmare worlds of depravity and violence. It's why we root for these characters to over come seemingly unbeatable odds and it's why our heart bleeds for them when their personal demons over come them. Josh Stallings clearly understands this. It's why his previous Moses McGuire novels Beautiful, Naked & Dead, and Out There Bad are so damn good It's also why his newest McGuire novel, One More Body, is another powerful, poignant, exciting, and just plain cool read.
Another simple truth of fiction is that actions have consequences. Heroes, aren't just heroic because they risk life and limb to take on great threats. They're also heroic because the violence often required to destroy these threats affects these heroes on a deep, psychological level. This is something else that Stallings understands. When we first check in with Moses McGuire at the beginning of One More Body, the psychological wounds of what he saw and had to do in his previous outing are still very raw. Since the McGuire novels are predominately told in first person narrative here he tells us just how haunted he actually is:
“Sitting on the beach with a dead woman might drive some men mad. I found it reassuring.
Mo, this can’t last. Your life? It is fucked up even by your nonexistent standards.
Mikayla sat in the sand between my legs, back against my beer gut. Sweat ran down her shirt, the wet fabric clinging to the scar from her self-amputated breast. She’d done it to keep the ex-KGB from kidnapping her and selling her into prostitution. She was an assassin. A dead one. Her personal body count topped twenty or so pimps. She lost count in a whorehouse she torched in Tel Aviv.
McGuire isn't left alone with his visions of Mikayla for long. Early on in the novel he's visited by another fascinating character, a mysterious and determined female cop named Rollens who has a mission for him. She heard of Moses' successful mission (from Out There Bad) to shut down a Mexico-based ring of sex traffickers who preyed upon under age girls. She needs his help to rescue her 13-year old niece from a Los Angeles-based gang that's been kidnapping and turning out young girls.
McGuire is hesitant to return to the world of killing and his hometown of Los Angeles, but he agrees to help, and the first fascinating character we meet upon Moses' return to the City of Angels is the city itself, which is another prominent character in One More Body. Here are Moses' first impressions upon driving back into LA:
It was raining by the time we hit downtown LA. From the 5, I could see the skyscrapers disappearing into low clouds. Gold and silver towers looming over the industrial train tracks and the Mexican streets of East LA. The homeless collect in downtown. Billion dollar high-rises look down on a legless beggars. My hometown. She held only sad memories. Innocence stolen for five bucks a shot in low-rent strip joints. Booze-addled fantasies of love turned wrong. Dead friends and betrayal. Welcome home, son, grab a glass.
When Moses returns home he begins to look into the underworld of the Los Angeles' sex trade to try and obtain the whereabouts of Rollens' niece, Freedom. While he's doing that, Stallings occasionally shifts the narrative and we follow the point of view of Freedom. These chapters will horrify you and break your heart, because what Freedom's captors do to her is described in detail. They'll also have you marveling at the strength and inner bravery of the young girl. Her captors try to destroy her sense of self and recreate her as a prostitute named Little Diamond. She clings tight to her identity though, and after enduring days and weeks of torment, she begins to put a plan into action to strike back against the men who destroyed her innocence:
Freedom knew exactly how long she had been held in the room with no windows. Long enough to sharpen the tip of a wire hanger into an inch-long, razor-sharp blade. With a pair of metal fingernail clippers and file combo, she fashioned a second blade farther down the wire. The remaining wire folded into a grip. Holding the wire between the two blades, her weapon could sever tendons. Stab. Grab. Pull. She wished she could pick her first kill. She wished she could have picked her first lover. Life chose. She reacted.
Moses is more than capable in a fight, but to find Freedom, he'll need allies. This reunites him with some characters from the previous McGuire novels like Gregor, a tough Armenian street soldier; Detective Lowrie, a cop who disproves of Moses' violent methods but recognizes their results; and Peter Brixton, the reporter who did an expose on Moses' war against the sex traffickers in Mexico.
It's not just familiar faces that join Moses in his quest to rescue Freedom. He also meets some new and very intriguing allies like Sunshine, a former hitwoman and gun dealer, and Kenny, the young computer expert who assists her. Sunshine is especially interesting, not just because of her past and present career, but also because the emotions and honesty she brings out of Moses, including something that sheds new light on the demons that torment him.
Near the end of the book Moses makes the acquaintance of another ally, a homeless veteran named Kilroy. Like Moses, Kilroy is suffering from PTSD from all the violence he's seen and endured, but he's not a cynical man. Here he offers Moses another way to look at life:
“Pay fucking attention. You can be forgiven. They can be forgiven. No one is beyond redemption. No one.”
“Not real sure about that, Kilroy. Some shit you can’t take back.”
“Didn’t say you could, brother, but you can heal. You can do good. You can return balance to the world. Fuck it, you aren’t listening. I know, blind man hippy bullshit, right? But what if I’m correct? Check this. There was a junkie. He sold dope. He pimped. He went to jail. He found a better way. He became Malcolm X and he changed the world. Redemption? I don’t know, but if you give up on the concept…fuck, brother. Fuck it. I’m tired. I talk too much. Get me back to the fire, I’m cold.”
With that bit of a dialogue Kilroy expresses another element that makes One More Body and the other Moses McGuire novels so addictive and compelling; their punk rock attitude. Moses may not necessarily believe he can be redeemed, but he refuses to accept that the awfulness of the world and his place in it are predetermined. He fights for something better, and he fights to be something better. It's why we readers love Moses and it's why we cheer his victories and bleed with him when his personal demons get the better of him.
One More Body features an intriguing cast of memorable characters and reads like a west coast based, punk rock fueled take on Andrew Vachss' Burke series of novels. The thrilling action and powerful moments of character drama that fans of the McGuire series have come to expect are in abundance in this novel, which is even better than the previous two entries in the series.
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