She Rides Shotgun

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Written by Jordan Harper — Whichever category you choose to assign She Rides Shotgun to – debut novel, chase thriller, hardboiled man-out-of-prison drama, or even twisted coming of age novel – one thing’s for sure: you won’t read many better examples all year. (The book is out in the US this week, and comes out in July in the UK entitled A Lesson in Violence.)

Nate McClusky had just a week left in prison when he killed a man. He was serving a sentence for armed robbery when his lawyer got lucky with an appeal. His good fortune turned bad – isn’t that always the way for guys like Nate? – when his release brought him to the attention of Aryan Steel. Once a nationwide white supremacist organisation like this has its claws into a man, they never let go. However, Nate lives by a code adopted from his deceased older brother, also a criminal. That code tells him never to become beholden to anyone. So when the brother of Aryan Steel’s leader demands that Nate work for them on the outside, he has a shiv in the man’s neck even as he realises that he’s as good as signed his own death warrant.

Just days before his release, Nate hears that the warrant calling for his death includes his ex-wife, Avis, and his middle-school daughter Polly. The contract on Avis has already been completed by the time Nate can get to her house, but he is able to get Polly out of school and away before the killers arrive. The police are not an option, and he knows the state can’t protect his daughter. The first time he calls on friends he is betrayed, and so he’ll have to keep himself and his pre-teen daughter alive while he figures out a way to get the gang off their backs.

The UK cover.

Nate McClusky may not be a hardened killer, but he has lived as an outlaw for most of his life. He takes what he wants, and accepts that sometimes he will have to pay a price for that. His moral compass doesn’t extend far beyond loyalty to kin, and his emotional range doesn’t reach much further than anger and a desire for revenge. Polly, however, couldn’t be more different; a fluke of genetics has placed her at the right-hand side of the bell curve for intelligence, and she is a bookish loner with self-confidence issues whose best friend is a stuffed bear.

One of the challenges in writing this book for Harper was to make us believe that that these two people could trust each other, even bond over the course of their adventure. He succeeds beautifully; putting us in Polly’s place as first she is scared of, then curious about, and eventually protective of this force of nature which has absolutely turned her life upside down. Polly becomes a more confident, resourceful person through her association with her father, but her experiences living with a violent career criminal for the most part are not romanticised, and the consequences of this cataclysm for Polly’s future are acknowledged, even if they are not made completely explicit.

The novel has a small but well-drawn cast of characters, including the detective investigating Polly’s disappearance, some corrupt law men, and a young woman trapped by Aryan Steel in the way that Nate was so keen to avoid. In fact, Harper’s economical writing style extends the length of the novel. I am all for a sprawling epic, if done well – a la Don Winslow – but it’s a refreshing change to see a writer pack so much into less than 300 pages.

Having read She Rides Shotgun, it’s no surprise to me that literary crime writers like Megan Abbott and Benjamin Whitmer are queuing up to heap praise on it. In Polly, Harper has a creation that will live long in the memory, and I expect She Rides Shotgun to be among the award winners for 2017.

For another great debut which features a crime story and coming of age drama, take a look at Dodgers by Bill Beverly. Also, see our best debut novels of 2015 and 2016.

Ecco Press

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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