Written by Lee Thompson — The author’s debut crime novel, A Beautiful Madness, ended up making it into my top five books of 2014. Despite only getting four stars at review, the masterful noir styling, a remarkable killer, and best of all the skilful unpeeling of a family’s secrets kept the book in my mind. Now Thompson returns with his follow-up and the premise of a killer returning to his home town to visit his dying mother promises more literary fireworks.
A decade ago, James Jackson robbed the local bank with his father’s shotgun. When his dad arrived at the scene as the first police responder, James killed him – with his own gun, too. In the intervening decade, James has lived under the radar and on the fringes of society, never returning home. But an email from his younger sister, Harley, has summoned him back. His mother is a recluse and dying of cancer. To protect her mother’s feelings Harley has told her she sells clothes for a catalogue company, but in fact is working as a stripper and has become involved with an older guy named Lincoln – the leader of an outlaw biker gang called the Tribesmen – who mistreats her.
Despite his own flaws, and his disappearance from the family 10 years ago, James cannot prevent himself from playing at being big brother on his return. Against Harley’s wishes, he turns up at the club where she works intent on finding the man who has been hitting her. Instead he finds himself threatened – first by his father’s partner Don Gray who promises to shoot him the moment his mother dies, and then by Robert Stevens, bodyguard and enforcer for local mobster Fat Lou, who has carried a secret crush on Harley for years and resents the way James ruined Harley’s life when he killed their father. Over the course of a couple of days and one long night, the legacy of one moment’s impulsive destructiveness plays out, and after scores are settled not everyone will be left standing.
Once the book gets past an explosive prologue – actually a flash forward to the final chapters – the story struggles to get started. The first conversations between James and Harley, and James and his mother, feel a little stilted, and the expected emotional fireworks never arrive. Considering the gravity of James’ actions, I was a little surprised, and disappointed about how subdued those early scenes were. However, once the action gets going the story really improves. The author seems much more comfortable writing from James’ perspective than from the women’s, which is a little surprising given that his previous novel had such a memorable and strongly-written female protagonist. None the less, from about 40 pages in the book is un-put-downable and motors to a thrilling climax. Right now, It’s Only Death doesn’t feel as if it quite lives up to its predecessor, though there are signs that the author is flexing his hardboiled muscles here, and who knows how I’ll feel in 12 months, and either way its still a damn fine read.
You can read our interview with the author here. It’s Only Death is available from 20 January.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars