Red Right Hand by Chris Holm is the 2nd book in the Michael Hendricks series, featuring a terrorist attack in San Francisco and a Federal witness Hendricks must find and protect (Available September 13, 2016).
What makes Michael Hendricks rate higher on my sliding scale of contract killers and makes him worth reading?
For one, he's operating in a world where there are real consequences to his actions. Most fictional killers for hire are a seventh-rate James Bond or Vincent Vegas, functioning in embellished settings where putting a bullet through a human being’s cranium has little significance and is done strictly to be glamorized, maybe even punctuated with a tired catchphrase like, “A hole in one.” Yes, I know, we are reading fiction (Why so serious, Batman?), but the stories should unto thine own selves be true for me to remain invested.
Second, and along the same vein, Chris Holm sets up his storylines with more emphasis on the human condition. In the long run, how are we supposed to care about a protagonist if he or she is a cardboard cutout, and that also goes for the secondary characters.
At the start of Red Right Hand, we meet Jake and Emily Reston and their three children Hannah, Aidan, and Sophia. They are a vacationing family who have stopped at Fort Point near the San Francisco Bridge to find the exact location where Jake’s mom and dad had taken an iconic family photo years before. They ask a passing stranger, an older man, to video them with their cell phone, when a terrorist strike hits. Unexpected hell rains down, and when Jake comes to, his family is nowhere around.
Fear twisted Jake’s guts. He looked around. The effort made his head pound, his vision swim. There wasn’t much to see, anyway—the air was choked with thick dark smoke that seared his lungs with every breath.
Jake tried to stand. The world seemed to wobble around him, and he was forced back to his knees. “Hannah! Aidan! Emily!” he shouted, his voice a dry croak—somehow loud enough to strain his vocal cords, yet so faint that he could barely hear it.
There was no reply. He crawled upslope a ways and tried again. This time, he heard something. His name. High-pitched, frightened, questioning. Emily, he realized.
A tugboat of explosives has rammed the bridge, and the old man that was getting ready to film the family pic has vanished, others lay nearby dead. What parent or spouse in this day and age doesn't cling a little tighter to loved ones when another terrorist or school massacre happens. By Mr. Holm including these relatable characters, it tightens the emotional vice. We are any number of the people in these opening chapters.
And, here’s a third reason for my digging Mr. Holm’s approach: Michael Hendricks’s actions don’t happen in a cartoonish vacuum where no one else contributes to the stories outcome. We also meet FBI Special Agent Charlie Thompson and Director Kathryn O’Brien, who begin investigating the terrorist strike, learning that the missing gent—the family cell phone was recovered and he inadvertently filmed himself—that had taken the video was none other than Frank Segreti, a federal witness long believed to be dead.
Thompson and O’Brien make a great duo—they could operate a series all by themselves. More than work associates, they are also in a personal relationship. Early in the narrative, O’Brien is meeting Thompson’s parents for the first time and she overhears Thompson’s father questioning the smarts of being involved with not just any old coworker, but with her boss. Once again, Mr. Holm has us ardently tied to these characters as we wonder how the stress of this latest case will affect the couple’s private life.
But what about the book’s main protagonist? When the tugboat hit, Michael Hendricks was on the other side of the country at a dive called The Salty Dog, targeting the Pappas crime family that’s part of The Council—a conglomerate (fans of Richard Stark will remember the similar Outfit from the Parker series) that links the various mafia associations together. They had killed Hendricks’s best friend Lester, and he has begun his systematic elimination.
For a moment, the three men at the table paid him little mind. But that changed when he shot Dimitris in the face.
It was nothing personal. Headshots are simply the quickest way to put a target down. Or, at least, they would be if Hendricks had a real gun to work with, instead of this rinky-dink .22.
Dimitris took the shot just below his left eye, but it didn’t penetrate his cheekbone, it just deflected off it—furrowing his flesh from cheek to ear. There was a crash of plates and glass as Pappas upended the table and took shelter behind it.
Hendricks’s hit doesn’t go as planned, and his goose is saved by a mystery woman named Rosalind Cameron, who swings in to rescue him. She gets him out of the bar, back to her apartment, and fixes him up. He pulls a gun on her but learns she’s a connection from his past and the right medicine for him to move forward.
Mr. Holm gets major atta-writer points for including strong, decisive characters like Cameron, O’Brien, and Thomson that are realistically drawn. I’ve often complained that a good majority of male writers—even skilled wordsmiths—have a hard time putting themselves into the opposite sex’s shoes (try reading the words coming out of Ernest Hemingway’s or Mickey Spillane’s female characters—forced, with a capital F).
If I’ve dwelled too long in praising the players in this thriller, let me step back and mention the kinetic energy shining throughout: a charged-up graphic approach that probably owes a bit to the author’s background writing for various crime fiction webzines—the equivalent to the old pulps that made Chandler and Hammett. Without sacrificing one iota of the grit of that medium, Mr. Holm has fleshed out a polished thriller—a well-connected thriller at that—and, in these days of what seems like constant terrorist attacks, a very believable piece of fiction.
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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.