Tuesday, May 15, 2012

NEW STUFF: Racing the Devil - Jaden Terrell

Racing the Devil by Jaden Terrell
The Permanent Press, 2012
ISBN 978-1-57962-271-8
264 pp.    $28

I am pretty sure that there is one thing about Jared McKean that sets him apart from all the other characters out there in Noir-land.  He knows a thing or two about horse massage. Equine sports massage, apparently, is the proper term. I am convinced there isn't another private eye in the contemporary crime fiction who has this skill or knowledge. Being a Tennessee horseman it's probably something that's necessary. Jared is also an ex-cop and now a private eye.  There are a couple other things about Jared that set him apart from the usual suspects:  he has a gay roommate, has a son with Down syndrome from his previous marriage, and he seems to have a superhuman ability for solving the emotional tangles and traumas of all his relatives when they themselves are at a loss to cope.  He's part of that new breed of P.I. -- the sensitive tough guy.

Racing with the Devil has some of the best opening scenes of any new book I've read in a long time. Private eye Jared McKean meets Heather, a seductive woman in a bar, has a fling with her in a motel and then discovers the following morning that he's been framed for murder of an unknown woman in the very same room he had his one night stand. Shortly thereafter he's arrested and thrown in jail with a cell full of thugs and tough guys who are told that their new cellmate is not only wanted for murder he's been charged with possession of kiddie porn. You can guess what happens. Major fight scenes with McKean given the opportunity to show off his skills in Tae Kwan Do. I wondered if the book could keep up this level of action and interest. It was so well done I felt like I was reading a Gold Medal paperback original from the 1950s. The story does get more and more interesting, but like most of contemporary crime novels these days action and main plot give way to the obligatory back story, personal life and tangential subplots, and (bane of my reading experience) wardrobe updates that seem more intrusive than integral.

That's not to say that I didn't like reading about Jared's gay roommate, Jay, and his rocky love life;  or that Jared's teenaged nephew is having a sexual identity crisis and is tempted to join a group of Goth/neo-vampires in a seedy club in Nashville; or being introduced to his newly remarried ex-wife and the husband "who has taken his place" and all the rest of it. It's just I was more interested in why Jared was set up for the murder of a woman he never knew; in the true identity of Heather, the woman who chose him as the patsy; and just why the chauvinistic Reverend Avery, leader of a church that seems to have a lot in common with that awful fundamentalist Christian movement known as the Promise Keepers, reminds Jared so much of a child molester he helped convict years ago.

I read crime novels for the mystery and crime elements. The private eye angle of the story is well plotted when Terrell decides to tell that story. There is some good detection intermingled with all the interrogation and disguises and you learn a bit about modern police techniques. When the story focuses on the McKean family members the book starts to fall flat with dialogue and scenes lifted from TV movies and domestic dramas..

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is all the horse talk. One of the suspects, Valerie Shepherd, runs a Arabian horse farm. Jared goes undercover as a prospective buyer of one of her horses. In these scenes I learned about the care and feeding of horses, the fascinating technique of horse massage, the differences in horse temperaments in the various breeds, and a whole lot more in the equestrian world. The book is set in Tennessee -- Nashville and surrounding towns.  Horses are almost required background.  I enjoyed this portion of the book immensely.  Terrell clearly is a horse expert and horse lover.

The frame-up is only the springboard for this well done story.  The skill with which Terrell manages to weave the fairly large cast of characters into her near webwork plot is remarkable.  Rev. Avery, Valerie, the victim's husband, a mysterious blond man with a Corvette, and even Jared's own brother Russell all become suspects with motives for the murder of Amy Hartwell who all of Nashville believes to have been Jared's lover though he has never seen nor heard of her prior to her death. When the story focuses on the murder and the several mysteries surrounding Amy's brutal death and the amazing frame-up the book is a gripping read. The family elements and subplots were less thrilling and interesting to me.

A second novel, A Cup Full of Midnight, featuring Jared McKean (and presumably the new girlfriend he acquires int he final pages) will be out this summer.  I'm interested to see how he has grown and whether or not Terrell can top this debut which was quite a stunner.

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