Sunday, February 5, 2012

Down the Rabbit Hole to Hell

If Charlie Hardie--the hero of author Duane Swierczynski’s Fun & Games--was channeling Bruce Willis as tough cop Officer John McClane in all his Die Hard, “Yippee-ki-yay, m***...!” glory (and believe me, he was), then the follow-up, Hell & Gone, finds him walking as well in the footsteps of Willis’ conflicted convict James Cole from Twelve Monkeys, with a bit of Alice in Wonderland (well, if Alice were a bruiser sporting a five-o’clock shadow) and its down-the-rabbit-hole trippiness thrown in for good measure.
Intrigued? You should be, because Swierczynski is the real deal when it comes to delivering pulse-pounding, visually-dynamic, explosively-energetic, and insanely-addictive action-suspense-crime-fiction thrillers. And, as outrageously good as the first in the Hardie trilogy (see my review here ) was? I think the second, Hell & Gone, is that much better.

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Hell & Gone picks up right where the previous book left off, with Hardie in a world of hurt after having been beaten to a pulp and left for dead at the end of Fun & Games. The so-called “Accident People”--an elite group of hit men and “fixers” who hire out to the highest bidder (and whose dastardly plans it just so happens he singlehandedly foiled)--really aren’t the sort of folks you want to get on the bad side of... so naturally, that’s precisely where Charlie happens to be sitting (or lying in a semi-conscious state, if you want to get nit-picky about such things).

Nor are the Accident People the type to waste an opportunity when one arises. If they think you may be of potential use to them, they’re more apt to stab you with a series of big pointy needles laced with heavy-duty knockout drugs, patch you up a bit, then stuff you in the trunk of a car and drive to what feels like the ass-end of nowhere, than they are to just kill you outright. 
When Hardie finally climbs out of his drugged stupor (one he’s convinced must’ve lasted only a few days, although the truth turns out to be scarily different), he discovers that he’s in a prison--but not the type with row after row of barred cells and hundreds of yelling inmates. This prison is something much more disturbing, as is the fact that one of the Accident People--one with whom he already has a less-than-chummy relationship (hey, poking someone’s eye out tends to put a crimp in the ol’ let’s-be-pals bit)--is sitting across an interview table from him... smiling.

She tells him she has some bad news and some worse news for him. The bad news is that yes, he’s in a prison, a highly-secret place in an (undisclosed) underground location, the sole purpose of which is containing the most dangerous, heinous criminals from around the world. The worse news is that he, Hardie, is the new warden of the joint. The real kicker, though, is that just in case he or anyone else gets any crazy ideas, the place is equipped with a special “death mechanism”; any attempts to escape will trip the mechanism, and everyone inside--everyone--will be killed.

Oh, and if he refuses to play along, to act as warden in this creepy gulag? His wife and son will be the Accident People’s next targets.
It's an impossible predicament for a man used to thinking with his fists, but he has no choice but to go along, biding his time in this bizarro place until a window of opportunity presents itself. So, he tries to figure out his “staff”, four scary-weird guards he’s sure he doesn’t like. He observes their prisoners, and wonders what each has done to earn the distinction of “worst criminal on earth”. He sees the various methods of punishment (torture) the guards use on the prisoners... and experiences the distrust the guards have for their new boss. 


And, as endless days pass in their windowless world, he starts to question just who is the worst of the bunch: the ones with the electric batons and spiffy uniforms, or the ones behind bars... 
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To call this an “action” crime fiction book is like referring to a Lamborghini as “transportation”; it’s a balls-to-the-wall, super-charged, badass-rocket-launch of a thrill ride that grabs you by the throat on the first page and doesn’t let up until the last one (and not even then, really, since there’s still one more book to go).
Swierczynski has a knack for making everything seem perfectly plausible, thanks primarily to his irresistible “everyguy” hero. Like the John McClane character from the Die Hard movies, Charlie Hardie is just an ordinary dude; sure, he’s tough and can handle himself, but he doesn’t have any super-knowledge or super-powers. He may have the bad luck (in spades, actually) to find himself in the middle of some seriously-tight jams, but he also has the determination and instincts to get himself back out. And, although this couldn’t be further from a touchy-feely book, there’s no doubt Charlie cares about stuff, and about people, in his way. His inner monologues--which let us know just how close to the brink of insane fury, crippling uncertainty and despair, or near madness he is at any moment--show an intelligent man all-too aware of his of lifetime of mistakes, now reconciled to living with his shame. Factor in his smart-ass sense of humor, and you’ve got a hero worthy of the big screen in Hardie.
As much as I’m dying to know what happens next in this wickedly-entertaining conspiracy-theory-on-rails trilogy, having to wait a bit gives me the chance to catch my breath. I’m sure I’ll be needing it for Swierczynski’s grand finale. ;)


GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating:  A Veritable Surfeit of Extra-Potent Mousies!