(This is the April 2011 edition of Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For the complete list, click the icon at the end of this review.)
I've been meaning to head on up to Nashville and meet Lt. Taylor Jackson for some time now. Ever since I first started reading the Murderati group blog a few years ago, I've been wanting to read J. T. Ellison's series but, for whatever reason, never got around to it. Last month, when I was contacted about reviewing the latest book in the series, So Close the Hand of Death, I paused. Here was opportunity knocking. Dare I answer it? Dare I read book #6 first? Would I be hopelessly lost, not knowing the relationships or the back story?
I needn't have worried. Ellison eases the new reader into the fray. Well, “eases” is a poor word choice. Chapter one has four scenes, three of which involve murder, all of which are introduced by e-mail messages from three different cities. Each killer--not giving anything away here--is committing the crimes in the style of the Boston Strangler, Son of Sam, and the Zodiac Killer. As the book progresses, you get to experience these killers' road trip across the country. They are converging on Nashville, and to one person: Jackson. Who are they and why are they after Jackson?
When we first see Taylor Jackson, she is tormented by what has happened to her sergeant, Fitz. It seems her arch-nemesis, a serial killer nicknamed The Pretender, has decided it's time to "play" and has used poor Fitz to initiate the game. The bulk of this early section with Jackson does a good job of filling in new readers like me who hadn't read the previous book. The action seems to indicate that this book picks up right where the last one ended. If that's the case, Ellison must've packed one heck of a cliffhanger.
But she packs a pretty good punch early this book, too. Jackson and her fiancé, Dr. John Baldwin (FBI) fly out to North Carolina to collect Fitz. Can't let slip the next, surprising, sequence (because I didn't see it coming), but needless to say, the action kicks into high gear. Quickly, Jackson and Baldwin and their friends in Nashville must race to answer a simple question: who is the Pretender and why is he so fixated on Jackson? And they need to answer it fast, because he is coming for her. The thing is, she's ready for him. Or thinks she is.
For all the exciting stuff and action set pieces, where this novel really excels is in the quieter moments. I don't know what Jackson was like in the five previous books, but she's skating very close to the edge in this one. Her hatred for the Pretender is palpable, exuding off the page. It's so strong that you, the reader, can taste it. Over and over, Jackson questions her darker actions--carrying an unmarked weapon, all but ordering her bodyguards not to follow her, making herself an obvious target--and wonders from which place inside herself this hatred is bubbling. Yes, she's a cop and used to dealing with unlikeable people more than the rest of us, but I got a good sense of her normalness as well. Could we hunt down a killer and off him in cold blood?
Another aspect of Jackson I enjoyed was her femininity. Too often, the tough gal in a book or movie is overly macho, like it's supposed to be a man character with long hair and breasts. She forgets to be a woman. Jackson's pretty darn macho in this tale, but she's still a lady, a lady in love, mind you. Little tidbits here and there are sprinkled throughout the book to help you remember: a look between Jackson and Baldwin, the complicated nature of a romance between law enforcement types. For every action she decides to take, it’s believable and not just something that propels the action forward.
As an author, it's our job to tell the story the way we want to, manipulating our readers whenever we see fit. In almost every scene in which Jackson appears, she's the main POV character. Sometimes, when Ellison wants to reveal something about Jackson, she changes the POV and has other characters comment on Jackson. Tellingly, in one interrogation scene, the POV shifts to the person being interviewed by Jackson. It's extremely effective because the reader gets to see how hard-nosed, take-no-bull a homicide detective Jackson really is. In that other character's mind, Jackson comes off pretty gruff. I can't help but wonder if Ellison did that on purpose.
This is an onion book, with Ellison having Jackson peel away layers until the core truth is revealed. The tension is sustained well, even during standard investigation scenes because you just don't know what Jackson will uncover. The ending is pretty shocking, with uncomfortable echoes of current events. I can't say any more than that without giving anything away, but, needless to say, I am so there for the next book.
This is a very good book, one I'm glad I read. I'll certainly be reading the other books in this series. If you haven't given J. T. Ellison a try yet, there's no better place to start than So Close the Hand of Death. In fact, I'm going to be giving away a copy of the book to a lucky commenter of this post.
Here's how it'll work: Just comment on this post. After two days (Friday, 8 April), I will put the name of each commenter on separate slips of paper and have my wife draw a name. I'll contact the winner and send out the free copy of So Close the Hand of Death. Good luck!
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