Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Book Review: Crosshairs by Harry Hunsicker

I’ve known about Harry Hunsicker’s PI, Lee Henry “Hank” Oswald, since his first book, Still River. Crosshairs is Hank’s third story after The Next Time You Die. The first thing anyone thinks about when approaching is Hank Oswald’s name. I mean, who doesn’t’ immediately think of JFK’s killer when they even hear the last name, “Oswald,” much less the first two names combined. It’s a good marketing technique, having a good guy with that name living in Dallas. It gets the potential buyer to take a second look and probably fork over cash just to see what this Oswald is like.

And, at least in Crosshairs (and, I assume, the other two books), when people are introduced to Hank Oswald, there is the running gag on his name. Kind of like another famous Texan, Ima Hogg. It’s true. Look it up. But Hank’s name is also the introduction to the character. Just like the protagonist is the Johnny Cash song, “A Boy Named Sue,” any reader coming to Hunsicker’s books automatically knows that Hank is going to be a bad-ass. He has to be with a name like that.

The story of Crosshairs is a usual mystery trope: two story arcs that converge. The book begins, in third person, with an unknown operative codenamed “The Professor” looking through the lens of his sniper rifle at his target. And, knowing it’s an Oswald novel, you immediately think the Professor is the bad guy. And you wonder who his intended victims are. But, from there, you jump to Hank’s POV.

Hank’s story is told in the traditional first person point of view. He’s given up his PI life in favor of a no-thought job tending bar. An old fellow Gulf War vet comes in, asking Hank to help find the daughter of a dying vet. It seems that this third vet went out on a mission in Hank’s place back in 1991 and now suffers from an unknown illness (Gulf War Syndrome?). An obvious guilt-ridden Hank tries to beg off but, in a running theme throughout the story, Hank’s true nature is that of a PI and he’s destined to pursue these cases even if he doesn’t want to.

What gets in the way, however, is a female doctor who he confronts, the very person on the other end of the Professor's sniper scope. After some typical banter, the doctor, Anita Nazari, asks his help in looking into suspicious e-mails threatening her and her daughter. Reluctantly, Hank agrees and here, the two stories start to converge. You see, Nazari, we learn later, is working on proving that Gulf War Syndrome is real, and it’s killing veterans like Hanks’ friend. But who is the Professor? It is a question that Hank sets out to answer and it leads him all around the Metroplex.

As a Texan and a lover of crime fiction, I’ve lamented the seeming lack of books set in Texas that deal with crime. It’s one of my professional goals to help put Houston on the crime fiction map. Hunsicker has done just that with Hank Oswald and Dallas. As Hank travels around the Metroplex, he names actually streets and areas, giving the reader a good sense of place. But not only that, Hank gives you his take on things, cynical that they may be. Dallas comes alive in a ways I haven’t seen or read in books. As a former resident of the Metroplex, I loved traveling with Hank. For readers who live elsewhere, I think Hunsicker’s travelogue will show a side of Dallas, and Texas, that non-Texan may not know. It’s a true strength of the novel.

Hank’s search takes him and the reader on a big tangent. As a writer and reader, I see how the tangent is important. The victims of one of the Professor’s murders is a member of a fringe society, an Irish group called the travelers. Just think of modern gypsies. And Hank’s involvement with them does shed clues and light on his main goal. But it was a little slow at this part. True, there were gunfights during this section and Hank actually met the Professor, but the story slowed here. The sense of menace lessened and Hunsicker, for obvious reasons, stuck with Hank’s POV and didn’t shift to the Professor’s. Doing so would have revealed things Hank needed to find out for himself but constant POV shifts is a good way to create tension.

Along the way, we meet Hank’s former partner, a lady named Nolan. From what I can gather, she plays prominently in the first two books but here, she’s married to an old guy and thinks she’s found her key to life. She helps Hank out but isn’t immune to the death that permeates the book. I look forward to meeting Nolan in the first two books and seeing how she really handles herself in dire circumstances.

Endings are everything. The ending of Crosshairs didn’t thrill me that way other books—Branded Woman, Money Shot—did, that is, leaving me wanting more. What the ending did do was bring about an X-Files-type of the ending, which is different but still effective. The story does end but with an ellipses and not a period. There’s more there and it’s just under the surface…or in a future Hank Oswald novel.

What I Learned As A Writer: The sense of place. I’ve been knocked by my critique group for not having more Houston in my story set in Houston. One of the biggest things I was looking for in Hunsicker’s novel is how he incorporates Dallas into the story. It’s never far away and it’s basically on every page. Dallas is not LA, New York, or Miami--cities that have been in movies and books for decades and, as such, need little intorduction--but it is a living character in this story. You could honestly argue that Hunsicker's Oswald novels are Dallas's introduction to the general reading public. Hank Oswald is your tour guide and he does it without ever feeling like it’s a lecture. It’s largely through side comments that the character of Dallas seeps into your consciousness. A word here about the skyscrapers, a word there about the traffic and the highways. I know those details to be true because I’ve lived up there. Hunsicker does a brilliant job of making the non-Texan reader feel like they’ve lived in Dallas, too. It’s that kind of quality that I want to bring to Houston. And I’ve a great example in Hank Oswald and Dallas, Texas.

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