Sunday, July 18, 2010

Revenge & Retribution in the Heartland

For me, it all started a long time ago... when I was a child, staying up till the wee hours of the night (or morning), watching some made-for-TV movie about Jack the Ripper with my mom. Decades later, I have no idea what the actual movie might have been--although it probably wasn’t a very good one--but I do know that thus began my own curiosity with the particular subset of mass murderers commonly known as serial killers.  
But what, we might ask, does it say about us, to have something which almost borders on an obsession with these horrible criminals? (And if your first reaction is to shake your head, rejecting outright the notion that perfectly “normal” people could be so interested in any such thing, then a brief tour of the thriller section at your local bookstore is clearly in order.) No matter whether you're fascinated by them or not, the serial killer character--someone who repeatedly goes out and murders total strangers for no comprehensible (and certainly no defensible) reason--is here to stay, a popular fixture in books, TV, and movies.
Perhaps our peculiar interest has to do with the very foreignness of it; most people can’t imagine killing even one person, let alone killing a bunch of them. There’s almost certainly a bit of the horror aspect in it for us, too; reading about/watching these monsters lets us experience the thrills and the fear vicariously (like watching a slasher movie while munching on popcorn at the theatre). And, maybe there's an element of revenge in there, as well--a desire to see harsh justice meted out to an unquestionably-bad person (after he's committed a suitable number of atrocities, naturally).
Of course, there are no guarantees in life. The bad guys don’t always get caught.
Lieutenant Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels of the Chicago P.D. has been dealing with one such slippery killer in the last few books in author J. A. Konrath’s continuing series. And, in Cherry Bomb, the sixth in his lineup of named-after-cocktails books (following Whiskey Sour, Bloody Mary, Rusty Nail, Dirty Martini, and Fuzzy Navel), Jack meets her greatest nemesis once again, for what may--or may not--be their final showdown.
Cherry Bomb finds Jack at an all-time emotional low, attending a funeral on a cold and rainy day. A successful cop in her late-40s, Jack had only recently allowed herself to open up enough to have a real relationship again. Following a messy divorce, she’d given up on that sort of thing; it was simpler--and yes, safer--to keep everyone at arm’s length. When Latham--a good man, who understood how important her career was to her, and supported it--came along, Jack realized that maybe she could be happy again. And she was, until the serial killer she’d been trying to put away escaped and went on another killing spree... leaving Jack’s fiancé dead. Jack’s burden of grief--and even more, her feelings of guilt--are immense.
Serial killer Alexandra Kork, on the other hand, never experiences guilt, and rarely grieves. She has, to put it mildly, an extreme personality disorder. In the past, her behaviors were sociopathic, taking full advantage of her ability to charm her victims into compliance via a killer combination of attractiveness and magnetism. Everything changed, however, after a run-in with Jack left half her face permanently scarred, and Alex has become, out of necessity, more of a psychopath, evil without even a veneer of pleasantry.  
Alex definitely has the textbook history to be a serial killer. She and her brother Charles endured a strict, abusive childhood at the hand of an ultra-religious father on a farm outside Gary, Indiana, eventually growing up to become monsters, themselves. The only person Alex ever really loved was her brother... till he was taken from her by Lt. Jack Daniels, who finally caught the elusive serial killer and sent him to his death. Ever since, Alex has divided her time between continuing the random killings and plotting ways to make Jack pay--hence, Latham's death. 
Jack's response to being taken off the case is to take matters into her own hands, vigilante-style. Having only the cell phone which Alex had left behind as a clue--the one Jack was obliged to turn in to the police, but didn’t--Jack is resolved to go after the killer and end things, once and for all.
Unlike Alex, though, who has no friends, there are a few people whom Jack can count on, rain or shine. There’s her erstwhile (and still somewhat-injured after the last go-round with Alex) partner of the past decade or so, Herb. Her ex-partner, from her days as a rookie, the slimy (also injured, courtesy of Alex) private investigator, Harry. An ex-con (and cancer patient) who--for some reason she can’t fathom--is always around when she needs him, Phin. Her retired-from-the-job mom, now starting to seem like an "old woman". Her previously-deadbeat dad--who only left because he was trying to come to terms with being gay--now trying to play an active part in Jack’s life. Add in a couple of other cops--one of whom would help Jack do almost anything for the chance to hopefully get into her pants, and one who simply agrees with Jack’s plan--and she’s got a pretty fair support team. The flip side to that, of course, is that she also has the safety and well-being of that many more people to worry about. 
True to the other books in this series, there’s no shortage of action as Alex leads the rogue little band of crime-stoppers, so hot on her tail, on a wave of terror across Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Indiana. (There are some interesting techie bits, involving cell phones, GPS, and explosives, along the way.) Nor is there any shortage of snappy banter and wisecracks; Jack may be feeling heartsore in this one, but her smart mouth isn’t going anywhere. For me, though, the best lines go--as usual--to the repulsively-boorish-yet-oddly-endearing Harry, a smart guy who pretty successfully pulls off looking like a moronic chump, most of the time. (I’d love to tell you about his Crimebago, and about Slappy, and the fate of a certain cashmere sweater, but... really, you’ll want to find out about those things for yourself. If this were a movie, I’d say those things alone were worth the price of admission. :)) 
As something of a break from the action and the craziness, we also get to see (briefly) a softer side of Jack, when she tries to work through her shattered feelings of guilt and despair over Latham’s death, and as she deals with Harry’s and with Phin’s concerns. None of it’s mushy, it just gives the characters a little more depth.
Cherry Bomb is full of action, as I mentioned, and I like that all of it feels “doable”, instead of being so ridiculously-plotted as to strain the bonds of belief. The ending takes place in stages, rather than one big finale, and that’s also good; nothing feels too tidy (which is so often the case). And I really do like the ending, because it sets up future books quite nicely. I’m looking forward to seeing where Konrath takes Jack Daniels & Co. next.  
Overall, this is an enjoyable series--a thrill ride with some laughs along the way. I’ll be the first to admit that it's a bit derivative. (To be entirely fair, though, it's probably really hard to be completely original in any genre any more.) So, while recommending it as a diverting-action-tale-with-humor, there are a couple of caveats. First, this is a hard-boiled series of the first order. Jack isn’t a fussy, frilly sort of gal; sure, she likes nice clothes and she (usually) wears makeup, but there isn’t much emphasis on stuff like that, at all. She doesn’t have a sweet little kitten or puppy, either; instead, she has an ill-tempered scrapper of a cat. Basically, she’s a take-no-crap kinda woman doing a tough job in what is still mostly a man’s world, and I like that... but some people may be put off by her. 
A bigger reservation in recommending the series concerns the violence. Fortunately, this isn’t a graphically "ooky" book, but the fact of all the blood, gore, and torture is always present. If you can’t handle even the thought of such things, it won’t be your cuppa. (Actually, if you’re the type to shy away from violence of any sort, you shouldn’t be reading any book about serial killers. Senseless deaths are what these tales are all about.)
On the other hand, if a modern-day, female version of a hard-boiled detective hero, mixed with a hodgepodge of over-the-top characters straight out of a loopy Carl Hiaasen caper, crossed with a Thomas Harris Hannibal Lector-style villain, sounds appealing, then this may be just what you've been waiting for to come along. 


Just make sure to save it for a beach read, when you’re surrounded by lots of people... or for when you’re safe at home, curled up on the sofa, with all the doors securely locked. You really can't be too careful, you know.

GlamKitty catnip mousie rating: 4 out of 5 mousies 

3 comments:

  1. Although your review is excellent, GlamKitty, I just can't get past the explicit sadism and torture in Konrath's books.

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  2. Konrath. :D Yup, I enjoy the {over-the-top characters straight out of a loopy Carl Hiaasen caper, crossed with a Thomas Harris Hannibal Lector-style villains}, I like to touch the dark side.

    GK, I have Cherry Bomb on e-reader, I just haven't gotten to it yet (like so many other books in my library), but I'm glad I had the opportunity to read your review.

    Konrath's saving grace is Jack. I think it's the same approach (Master) Thomas Harris takes with his female protagonist. I've read some of this other work, and I have to say Konrath allows himself to get lost in the mind of the serial killer. It's like...he goes in a little to deep and forgets about the reader that's waiting for salvation through the protagonist. Does that make sense? I dunno, Jack's a great character and I like sadistic serial killers, so I should be good to go with this one!

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  3. Jennifer, while the element of sadism is definitely there, the scenes aren't nearly so graphic as they might have been. I'd say more of the horror here is actually via mind games--Jack and her crew knowing that they're racing against the clock to save someone from an awful death (and of course, the victim, all-too-aware of his/her imminent fate).

    Dani, you'll definitely be rooting for Jack--in all sorts of ways--in this one. :)

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