Dead Men’s Dust by Matt Hilton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Another one that reminds me of Mark Timlin‘s ‘Nick Sharman’ thrillers. And that’s (again) a very good thing. Gritty, clear, precise, nuanced.
The story proper starts in Manchester with the main character, Joe Hunter, warning off some local thugs who are terrorising his half-brother’s wife and child. His half brother meanwhile, has run off to Little Rock, Arizona (USA), with an ex-work colleague. The wife’s not impressed. But wants him back all the same. However, when Hunter gets to where his half-brother is, he isn’t. He’s run off, run away from…well, Hunter needs to find that out, in order to find his brother. Then there’s a serial killer on the loose. One ‘Tubal Caine.’ “Good name,” as Shakespeare would have said. He’s on a cross-country killing spree, quietly going about his business until a stranger stops him in the desert…
Joe Hunter is a vigilante. Not having read any of Lee Child’s books (as yet) who I understand also writes about a vigilante-like figure, I can’t say if he’s like ‘Jack Reacher’ or not. My problem at the start, in the setting-up phases of the book, was that when the first action took place, in Manchester, at night, I thought “ok, so he’s got a day job and sorts people out at night.” But no, Hunter seems to be a full-time vigilante. On finding out that his brother’s in trouble, in the USA, he immediately jumps on a plane to Miami, via New York. Unfortunately, lacking a workable explanation, and having experience of trying to book a plane ticket at short notice – and that’s just to go from Denmark to the UK – I’m unfortunately not thinking “Go Joe! Sort them problems out!” I’m thinking “That’s gonna cost! Where IS he getting his money from?!” From then on, I’m looking for some sort of explanation for where the – seemingly – unlimited funds come from, rather than romping along with the story. You see? There isn’t really much of any kind of explanation. Not put together as sentences and a paragraph of explanation. Only some hints and half hints of work as a security advisor and money (presumably) from glad previous recipients of his brand of problem solving. Personally, I can’t imagine his previous job, he is ex-Army Special Services, paid enough to, effectively, retire on and not worry about having to stay in eating beans the 4th week until the end of the month. I can go along with the idea of not sitting us down and explaining the whole thing to us, then ‘and now on with the story’, we’re not children. So the idea of drip-feeding us, with more to come (as this is clearly set out as the first in an on-going series from the start), is the way I would like it to be done. However, the information is more than a bit sparse and not full enough to drag my niggling penny-pinching mind away from the “where IS he getting the funds for that from?” Having said all that, once the book kicks off for real, the writing and the style and the rush of the action, made me forget all that until I was finished. That’s good.
The character of Joe Hunter is clearly written to be the big brother you sometimes must have wished you had. Likeable, protective, resource able, honest, trustworthy and ready to dispense justice with his fists or anything else to hand. More of a discussion of the moralistic aspect of all this, wouldn’t have gone amiss. Maybe that’s being saved for later. It did seem a little funny how it’s acceptable the violence perpetrated by the hero, but when it’s the serial killer, the book walks away whistling ‘Dixie.’
The passages/chapters written with the serial killer at the centre, are really well done. Chilling due to their matter of fact ordinariness, I suppose you could put it. How Steven Spielberg does it in ‘Jaws‘, remember the scenes of happy people, like you and me, enjoying a day at the beach? Only we know there’s a man-eating shark out in the water, the people on the beach don’t. So it is us doing the work, creating the tension in a way. You know he’s a serial killer, but he doesn’t act like one. ‘Doesn’t act like one?’ How do I know what a serial killer acts like?! I suppose you’re waiting for him to crack and do something dreadful. So the tension is created by your own foreboding. If anything elevates this above the run of the mill, that is it. Made me forget the ‘problems‘ of where Joe Hunter’s money is coming from anyway.
And it ends with a “oh good lord, must take a sneak peak, see how many pages there are left, because I don’t think my shredded nerves will shred any more,” spine-tingling climax that does justice to the story and the book – and got me on the internet straight away to track down a (hardback) copy of Joe Hunter #2. If it’s missing anything, it’s a real twist. I thought we were getting one at the end, but while it was a neat solution to the problem, it wasn’t a jaw hits floor moment, that would have finished it off properly and elevated it up to the next thriller level. Having said that, there is enough evidence here, in his style and general level of writing – some weak, even cliched one-liners or responses to other ‘villains’ aside – to suggest he is on his way there.
All in all, many good starts and an extra 1/2 star for Joe Hunter being a fan of Robert E. Howard. On p129 Hunter says: “Poe, Lovecraft, and R.R. Howard were my favourites.” Whilst I haven’t read anything by Edgar, Al and/or Poe – I have read some H.P. Lovecraft and, by Crom and Mitra, any fan of Robert E. Howard is quite clearly one of the select few and destined to be a good friend of mine.