Fresh Meat: This is Life by Seth Harwood

This is Life by Seth Harwood is the second Jack Palms mystery, set in San Francisco (available February 19, 2013).

I grew up in the ’80s and fondly remember the action movies of that era. They were exciting and full of edge-of-your-seat thrills. Violence was a big part of those thrills, but one of the things I firmly remember from watching those movies as a kid was how utterly terrifying the violence could be. Gunshots were loud! When people were hit by them blood exploded from their bodies! Violence wasn’t glamorized, it was ugly and painful. So the best of these films managed to be both visceral and exciting, but also give you a sense that death and destruction were forces that you didn’t want to be part of your world. Those are hard stories to tell because fun and grim consequences are not easy things to balance, but writer Seth Harwood does an admirable job in his latest thriller to hit print, This is Life.

This is Life is Harwood’s second novel to feature washed up action film star and recovering addict, Jack Palms. In the first novel, Jack Wakes Up, Palms is slowly pulling his life back together when suddenly the fame from the one film he made, Shake ’Em Down, draws him into a battle for control of the San Francisco underworld. The drug trade and former Eastern European espionage agents are involved, and Jack survives that ordeal thanks to the help of three eccentric ex-spies known as Vlade, Niki, and Al, but his adventures also leave an ex-KGB agent in total control of crime in San Francisco. You don’t need to know these things to appreciate This is Life, but if you have read Jack Wakes Up it make the book more enjoyable and gives the reappearance of the characters from the first novel extra weight.

This is Life begins as another character from Jack Wakes Up, a veteran San Francisco police detective named Mills Hopkins, returns to make Jack Palms an offer. Hopkins needs outside eyes to help him investigate corruption in the police department so he turns to Jack because of the way he handled  events in the previous novel. Because he has no career and nothing much else to do Jack agrees to help and his investigation uncovers a human trafficking ring with hooks in the police department, the FBI, and even the Mayor’s office.

So the stage is set for action and Jack is a physically fit and determined guy, but he can’t take on such an ominous foe alone. He needs tough allies that he can trust, and midway through This is Life Harwood gives him two: a dogged female FBI agent and an ex-special forces soldier who has taken a job as a detective with the nearby Walnut Grove police force.

The scenes in which Palms and Alvin Shaw, his ally in the Walnut Grove police force, go into battle allow Harwood to illustrate the mesmerizing and brutal aspects of violence. When Shaw, who is no stranger to killing, goes into action with guns blazing it’s played like this:

A shot comes out of the cafe—Jack can see the older man shooting from around the side, through the window—and Shaw stands up and rushes the building. He times his leap and flies through the air in front of the window, emptying his clip into the old man. When Shaw hits the ground, he rolls and comes up next to the guard’s head. Faster than Jack can move, Shaw reaches inside the guy’s jacket and comes out with the gun: a small automatic that looks like a Glock but probably isn’t.

Then later on in that same battle Jack is force to shoot and kill a person for the first time:

The guy flips back onto the hood and slides down its front, drops into a sitting position on the ground, his legs tangled under him and both hands by his sides. He closes his eyes and swallows hard. When he opens them, he takes a breath and coughs, blood rolling out of his mouth and onto his chin. He’s looking at Jack, and a wave of understanding passes across the guy’s face. It’s the understanding that Jack will be the last person he sees.

“Fuck,” Jack says and turns. He puts his hands down, trying to erase Cap’s expression from his mind’s eye. Luckily it works—for now.

Death isn’t the only consequence of Jack’s actions in This is Life. People also get maimed, bloodied, and battered in a later sequence in the book when Jack and one of his allies fall into the hands of the main Russian mobster. It’s a brutal and haunting sequence.

So ultimately This is Life is a satisfying read that manages to be both fun and powerful. My only real problem with the book was that its super short chapters were a little distracting. Otherwise, it’s the literary equivalent of a fun, classic ’80s action film where your cheer when the hero goes into battle guns blazing, but are also a bit frightened of the carnage they cause and the bloody stakes at play.

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Dave Richards covers all things Marvel Comics for the Eisner Award-winning website Comic Book Resources and his book reviews and other musings can be found at his blog Pop Culture Vulture.

Read all posts by Dave Richards for Criminal Element.