The Short Version: When a viral video of a terror attack against the Golden Gate Bridge reveals a federal witness against The Council long thought dead to in fact be alive, Agent Charlie Thompson faces a difficult decision. The FBI’s priority is catching the terrorists before they strike again – but Thompson knows that Frank Segretti is a dead man for real if she doesn’t help. So she calls in the only person she knows can help her out: Michael Hendricks. So what if he’s on the most wanted list (for hitting hitmen) and about to walk into a massive federal investigation?
The Review: If you’re like me, you can’t look at this novel and not think of the Nick Cave song. So go ahead, take a minute. It’s a damn good song, obviously – and it’ll put you in the right mood, to boot, for Chris Holm is as assured in his literary swagger as Cave is in his musical one. And it ain’t bravado, either; it’s the real damn deal.
It’s a simple concept, the hitman who only kills other hitmen – so simple you wonder why nobody did it before. Even if they did, it couldn’t hold a candle to The Killing Kind, one of the best introductions of a character since… well, probably since Dead Harvest, the first book in Holm’s last series. The guy has a way for writing smash-bang intros that not only develop a character within a few hundred pages, but a whole world. They’re the kind of memorable figures and settings that make it easy to jump back in a year later when the next book comes out without needing much, if any, refresher. This is a good thing when it comes to Red Right Hand, because this book uses nearly every single page as rocket fuel and there’s no waiting for you to catch up.
The structure of this particular Hendricks adventure reminds me, more than anything, of the first season or so of 24: this is all happening in the space of only a day or two, really – with some longer stretches at the very top and very end – and so everybody is running on coffee and adrenaline, basically. Hendricks, in particular, takes an unrelated* beating when he first appears in the novel and never totally recovers for the fight ahead. I asterisked that “unrelated” because it’s tangentially related: Hendricks has been, since the end of The Killing Kind, on a myopic mission to cripple the Council once and for all. But he’s been getting sloppy, without Lester backing him up and with an anger driving him like never before – and it nearly gets him killed in this tremendous opening fight scene.
It’s only the appearance of a young woman called Cameron – who has, it turns out, a connection to Hendricks that he never could’ve expected – that saves his life and she turns out to be a sort of Donna Noble to Hendrick’s Tenth Doctor. She’s insistent that she come along for the ride and she’s brash and bold enough to think that she’s got it all figured out, even though she’s nowhere near ready for a life like this. Still, they get some great banter and a real friendship grows between the two of them as the novel progresses. It was necessary to somehow replace Lester’s role – and I’m glad that, for at least this installment, Hendricks had somebody great at his side.
Speaking of at one’s side: let’s talk about the Devil’s Red Right Hand. The prologue of the novel snaps us back to a young Charlie Thompson on desk duty, her first gig out of the academy, and this utter badass shows up raving on a dark and stormy night and incapacitates several agents in the space of about a lightning flash. Who this guy is remains a question for some time, but I love the way that it begins to expand the mythos of this world. One of the best things about Holm’s The Collector Trilogy was the way that the world was as full as our own – and Holm isn’t letting us down on that front here. We get to see far more of the Council than I would’ve anticipated, but it’s really only a tease in the grand scheme of things – enough to get us salivating for more.
But beyond that, Holm develops this world to the point that it feels like ours. I know that seems like a potentially silly or obvious thing to say – it’s set in ‘our’ world, it isn’t like this is fantasy or something supernatural – but Holm makes the choice to spend moments where other authors might zip by or ignore them entirely. This terror attack on the Golden Gate Bridge is a frightening one (all the more frightening for me having driven over it twice less than a week before reading the book) but the really scary stuff is what comes after. Independent contractors taking over for the FBI, racist abuse of innocent individuals, and a growing dissolution of our sense of ‘security’. There’s a little moment, again the sort of thing that a more callow author might not even stop to think about, where Hendricks has to create a diversion with a suspicious package. He drops this backpack (filled with nothing dangerous at all) on the street and Cameron calls it in – and he thinks about how this is going to, for the people on that street, perhaps be even more damaging than anything the ‘bad guys’ did or will do, because now they’ve seen the sort of thing that even twenty years ago couldn’t really be imagined in this country. They will be suspicious, even after the weapon is revealed to be a total hoax, and some amount of innocence lost. We talk about the horrors that the West has perpetrated on the Middle East – kids scared of sunny days because that’s when the drones fly, the fear that any piece of trash could in fact be an IED – but we talk about it at arm’s length, because it could never happen here. Holm writes eloquently, if briefly, about the fear that such terrors could become all too well-known Stateside too.
He also, in one of my absolute favorite choices in this novel, decides to take his time in a series of scenes between Frank Segretti – the former mob informant thought dead, now on the run again – and an older woman whose house he nearly breaks into. Lois Broussard appears dazed and confused when he arrives at her backdoor, about to bust the window – but she lets him in. And he takes care of her, puts her to bed, and discovers why exactly she was so disoriented when he arrived. It’s a heartbreaking moment, one that makes me tear up just thinking about, but Holm digs deeper: he uses these scenes of relative quiet, in the midst of the chaos and panic outside, to develop both Segretti and Lois in ways that you don’t necessarily expect from the thriller genre. I think it’s safe to say, now, that we can expect it from Holm, though – no matter what genre he’s writing in.
The book is also timely when you put it in the context of our upcoming election. There’s nothing so overt as to talk about one candidate or another here – but there is a strong warning against our government and so-called special interests continuing to intertwine to the point of being indistinguishable. There are some classic noir overtones to the Big Bad, as it were, of the Council and there are ways that an ordinary cop or ‘hero’ might not be able to touch them because of the law’s protection. I’m excited to see what a guy like Hendricks, a bad man with a heart (not of gold, necessarily, but just a heart in general), might do to tip the balance. Sometimes, it might take being bad to save us all. Regardless, I can’t effing wait to find out what happens next.
Rating: 5 out of 5. Pretty much the perfect thriller, this. Holm doesn’t have to deal with the scene-setting as much, relying on readers to’ve read The Killing Kind first – and as a result, he gets to just keep building instead of rehashing. The action is mile-a-minute and yet he’s willing to take his time and have lovely character moments that don’t undercut the flow but instead enhance the feeling of speed and adrenaline, there are some great winks and nods to pop culture all over the place, and it’s impossible to put down because you just want to keep the ride going as long as you can. I knew Chris Holm to be a great writer before this book – but now, I think, the world is going to be in on the secret, too.
Oh and speaking of winks and nods… savvy readers might notice a similarity between Lois’ last name and my own. To which all I can say is that “I’m honored” barely even scratches the surface, in every regard.