Monday, May 16, 2011

A Windy City Cocktail: Jack's Reunion

We may not give much thought to it one way or the other--in fact, I’m pretty sure we don’t--but no matter what else we do, we’re constantly doing one thing: filing away memories, for later retrieval at some unspecified date. 
Case in point? All we have to do is hear a song playing in a store, catch a few minutes of an old movie on TV, get a waft of a certain perfume while walking through a room, or read a name or phrase in a book... and suddenly, without even trying, we’re right back in the middle of whenever, reliving in our minds some episode--either momentous or inconsequential--from the past. 
Good, bad, and boringly-mundane memories... our minds are like so many rows of filing cabinets in a huge warehouse, with vast storage space to hold all that stuff as we accumulate it with each passing day. But, we might ask, why do we have so many memories? Is their purpose, by turns, to titillate, amuse, anger, and/or embarrass us... or do we learn something valuable from them, as well?
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As anyone familiar with J.A. Konrath’s “Jack Daniels” detective series can attest, Chicago PD’s Lt. Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels has racked up more than her fair share of really, really bad memories. During her years on the force--particularly in the homicide squad--she’s seen nearly every type of heinous murder, committed by some of the most violent and depraved individuals imaginable. She’s had to fight for her life on several occasions, too, and has fought for--and, sadly, lost--the lives of some of those closest to her. 
When she joined the police department more than twenty years ago, her goal was to make a difference, and she’s certainly accomplished that... but at what cost, she often finds herself wondering.
Never more so, though, than she does in Konrath’s brilliant Shaken, which finds Jack not in pursuit of a killer, nor even among the killer’s prey... but already captured, with just hours left to live. Her captor? None other than the infamous “Mr. K,” one of the vilest, most sadistic serial killers ever, with more than 200 unspeakably-gruesome murders attributed to him--and someone with whom, as we quickly discover, she happens to have a very long history. (By the way, if you’re worried I’m divulging spoilers? Don’t be; I’m never one to give away any of the “good stuff”. This is something you can read about right on the book cover.)
Jack--bound in an anonymous storage locker no different than thousands of others in the Chicago metro, with only the implements of her impending torture and eventual, miserable death around her--can do nothing with the short time left to her but desperately try to escape her restraints... and to think, dredging up memory after memory from the course of her long career, especially from her prior run-ins with this particular maniac .
Those memories take her back some twenty-five years, from her time in the police academy (where she learned to ask a couple of extremely important questions) to her rookie case in homicide, up to the more recent past, when she retired from the force and set up in private practice. And always, surrounding those important events, she remembers the uncertainty accompanying her decisions--both personal and professional--and now, ponders them anew. 
Did she do enough, on the job? Were her efforts worth giving up having a family of her own? What of those she lost, all because of her chosen profession? Should she have made different choices? Is it enough, now, to know she stopped a lot of very bad people, when she goes home to her wanted-by-the-law, cancer-stricken boyfriend each night? 
Nimbly jumping back and forth--and back again--between 1989, 2007, and 2010, we see through Jack’s eyes exactly what her current predicament means to her and those around her, as well as why it was, perhaps, almost an inevitability. Not an inevitability that she--or anyone but Mr. K--would have likely foreseen, mind you, but rather, it’s the sort of thing that makes perfectly-logical (albeit twisted) sense when viewed in retrospect.
Meanwhile, as Jack struggles with the physical bonds and with her mounting anxiety and terror (because once you’ve been captured by a madman who’s killed hundreds of people with his bare hands, you have to know your chances are definitely not looking any-too rosy), the three men in her life are scrambling to figure out her sudden disappearance.
Herb, her long-time partner on the squad, who knows her better than probably anyone else in the world, frantically combs his memory and Jack’s files, seeking clues from their joint past to her possible whereabouts. Harry, her abrasive first partner--and once-again partner in their new p.i. venture--as well as recently-discovered (in what has to be the ultimate, cruel twist of fate) sibling, makes the usual raunchy jokes and crude remarks... even as he goes around with his kit, searching for evidence to analyze and test. And poor Phin--always sick, in pain, and a little loopy from his unholy cocktail of pain meds and chemo drugs, and whose status recently underwent a change from casual-friend-and-billiards-buddy to live-in boyfriend--is in a focussed-but-frantic furor, over the possibility of losing the woman he loves. 
The tension escalates, the horror builds... and then, things get so much worse.
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I’ve been a big fan of Konrath’s since picking up Whiskey Sour (the first in the series) several years ago. He’s always displayed a way with words, a wicked sense of humor (both the normal “cop” humor you’d expect from those who have to deal with bad people day-in/day-out, and the obnoxiously-crass [yet, amazingly, frequently hilarious] style humor as doled out nonstop by Harry), and a finesse for creating genuine suspense (with terror and shock value, to boot). If you like chills (and can stand a certain amount of gore), Konrath is always sure to deliver.
With Shaken, though, Konrath did something I wasn’t expecting: he got a lot better.
The most noticeable difference between this book and his others is, of course, the structure, which works brilliantly here. With a storyline that refuses point-blank to be anything remotely linear, it hops from 1989 to the near-present and the right-now with absolute ease. It may sound unlikely, but the story flows with nary a hiccup throughout all these multi-year jumps. (Admittedly, I’m a huge fan of non-linear storytelling--no doubt because that’s the way I tend to relate things, every day--but I honestly can’t imagine other readers not being able to follow the action.) It’s also important to note that he doesn’t do this merely to be “different”, but to allow for insight into the characters. (It works.) 
Speaking of the characters, this book also marks a real maturity and understanding among them. In previous outings, Jack has sometimes been a little too witty (especially at inappropriate times) for her own good, so that she hasn’t always come across as entirely believable, but that’s never the case in Shaken. Harry, well... Harry is the sort of living caricature you do, on occasion, have the (mis)fortune to get stuck spending time with, so his problem (for me) has always had more to do with being so frequently, thoroughly detestable than with any actual unbelievability. (Don’t get me wrong; it’s not even remotely essential that I love everything about the characters I read.) Harry has always been an entertaining-if-controversial player in the series; here, though, we see through/around the haze of his obnoxiousness and repulsiveness to... something more, and it’s that depth which is quite rewarding. Phin reins in some of his, shall we say, “bad behaviors”, and shows admirable control. And as for Herb, we finally discover what he was like all those years ago, then follow the progression of his relationship with Jack since their very first meeting. Their relationship has always rung true to me, but getting to see it unfold through Jack’s recollections is a special experience.
And what about the infamous Mr. K? Well, he’s something you’ll need to see for yourself, but suffice it to say that he is Evil personified... but the truly horrifying kind of evil that you wouldn’t recognize if you bumped into him on the street. He--and his psyche--are the stuff of which nightmares must surely be made.
Shaken won’t be for everyone. Obviously, it’s a book for devotees of suspense/psychological thrillers and police procedural/mysteries. (If you never gravitate toward those sections in the library or bookstore, then you already know this.) I didn’t find it overwhelmingly gruesome--then again, I’ve read a lot in this genre, so I’m probably somewhat immune--but if you have real difficulties dealing with any gore or scenes of torture, you may want to take a pass. Finally, this is actually a two-parter; the sequel Stirred will be coming out later this year, and is reported to tie up not only the cliffhanger ending from Shaken, but the whole Jack Daniels series. So, if you abhor cliffhangers of any sort--which don’t bother me, but seem to make a lot of people I know go ballistic about them--it’s probably best that you wait until the second book comes out, so you can read them back-to-back.
If, however, you can’t get enough really fine writing, plotting, and storytelling, served up with a heap of heart-stopping, gut-clenching chills, then by all means go, make haste, and pick this one up. It doesn’t disappoint. 

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 5 out of 5 Mousies