Written by Becky Masterman — New talent is inevitably associated with precocious writers who started young and stuck at it. Look at Roger Hobbs, now the proud owner of a CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for Ghostman, which he wrote while still at college. Hanna Jameson penned Something You Are, her 2013 Dagger-nominated debut, aged 17.
But there’s no reason why a new crime-writing voice can’t come with a certain amount of life experience. Becky Masterman is a middle-aged debut author from Arizona who’s written about an over-the-hill, ex-FBI agent with all the professional and emotional baggage that entails. Brigid Quinn is being stalked by some very dangerous men, and she’s trying to hold her marriage together. It’s an unlikely combination – serial killer thriller and relationship drama – but it kind of works thanks to the voice of Quinn, a fearless 59-year-old who’s more than a match for any mass murderer.
Hard and sometimes heartless, Quinn is haunted by an unsolved case that left her protégée missing presumed dead after being carelessly used as bait for the Route 66 Killer. Years after that tragedy, Quinn’s in semi-retirement in Tucson, Arizona when she gets drawn back into the case. A trucker, Floyd Lynch, has been caught with a mummified woman and he’s confessed to the Route 66 killings. Lynch can even show the FBI where their missing agent’s body was ditched, and the low humidity in the desert means she too is in a mummified state. However, something’s not quite right about this capture and Quinn, with the help of a young FBI agent and a psychological profiler she calls Sigmund, investigates the possibility that the real killer is still out there.
It might have been a disturbing read but for Masterman’s jaunty prose style, which articulates the black humour of an FBI veteran. ‘Only suckers believe in Closure,’ Quinn says, describing the plight of a victim’s families. There’s a terrifically tense opening from the point of view of an attacker, but it’s misleading in that the rest of the book is all Quinn’s voice written in the first person. For most of this novel, her serial killer nemesis remains a mystery to us as well as Quinn.
There are hints of a potential series when Quinn discloses her plan to set up a PI business, even though she’s already of the same vintage as Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, who’s now on her 23rd book. But let’s not be ageist. Quinn does bring some depth and experience to the character, though of course she’ll be cast 25 years younger if Hollywood ever decides to adapt the books into films.
Rage Against the Dying is an entertaining, pacy read with plenty of wit and verve, though it’s very much in the tradition of the troubled American law enforcer clashing with authority. Admittedly, it’s refreshing how Quinn turns the tables on her attacker early on and ends up fearing she might get caught by the cops, having got form for vigilante behaviour. This is the scenario that threatens to destroy her relationship with a retired professor, as her past is exposed and it becomes clear her life’s been spent duelling with mass murderers rather than investigating copyright infringement, a career pose designed as a deliberate conversation killer.
Masterman’s novel sets off at a galloping pace and keeps you hooked, but it’s not a book that embraces the possibilities of fiction. Point of view and time frame are never tinkered with in a slick thriller of the one-thing-after-another variety. That’s fine when the writing’s good, but sometimes it has the uncertainty of a debut. ‘You don’t ever want to lose your gun,’ Quinn pointlessly informs us during a key scene, which merely undercuts the tension of the story.
Nevertheless, Quinn’s an engaging character who helped secure Rage Against the Dying a CWA Gold Dagger nomination. Based on this promising first outing, there’s no reason why Becky Masterman can’t win the award once her talent has matured just a little longer.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars