Killing Floor by Lee Child

Killing Floor by Lee ChildKilling Floor by Lee Child
Narrator: Dick Hill
Series: Jack Reacher #1
Published by Brilliance Audio on 6/3/8
Genres: Suspense

Book: B-
Narration: B+

Jack Reacher is a former army MP (Military Police.) His job was essentially downsized (definitely an indicator of this book’s original publication date of 1997) and he now finds himself wandering the U.S. and enjoying his freedom while deciding what he wants to do next. A casual mention about Blind Blake (a blues/jazz guitar player who died sixty years earlier) in a letter from the brother he rarely communicates with gives Reacher a reason to wander through Margrave, Georgia. He has just arrived and is eating breakfast when the local police storm the diner and arrest him for murder. After he’s moved to the state prison for weekend detainment along with a man named Hubble who is also believed to be involved in the crime, there is an attempt on his life which he handily thwarts.

When his alibi checks out and Reacher is released, he puts his roaming plans on hold in order to spend some time with the oh-so attractive officer Roscoe who seems to have developed an instant attraction to him when she saw him in custody. The discovery of another body leads the chief of detectives, Finlay, to call Reacher back in to ask him to divulge what Hubble may have shared with him while they were in jail. When it turns out that Reacher knew the second dead man, that relationship and his experience as an MP inexorably draws him into an investigation of the criminal activities taking place in Margrave. The action continues to escalate as the details of what is going on in Margrave are slowly revealed and the book builds to an action-packed and exciting climax.

This book is a bit outside my usual listening habits but I’ve pimped every audiobook in this series out to the men in my life and they enjoyed them a lot so I thought it was time I listened to one. I’m not sure I would have chosen now to start except my friend Teri suggested we do a co-listen. Doing a co-listen was especially nice with this book because it allowed me to engage in a great discussion about the genre conventions that might typify what, in the privacy of my own mind when my inner feminist is napping, I sometimes think of as “guy books.” I’m stating for the record that I’m using just the characters’ last names in this review not because I’ve forgotten their first names but because almost everyone in the book is called only by their last name. In fact, I don’t think we even find out what the first names of three-quarters of the characters are.

I liked a lot about this book and disliked an equal number of things but overall I enjoyed the action that drove the story forward and at some point will listen to more in this series.

On the plus side:

  • The opening scene is arguably one of the most immediately engaging scenes I have read and it drew me in to the story completely
  • Reacher is an interesting character with a lot of potential for development in future books and he was more multi-dimensional than I was expecting
  • The practical part of my nature (that’s a pretty significant part) appreciates the tough protagonist who is willing to eliminate any possible threats and doesn’t leave potential enemies alive to attack from his back-trail
  • The action scenes were very well written
  • The mystery/suspense was decent
  • Dick Hill’s narration was very good

On the negative side:

  • There was an overload of simple dialogue tags (…” he said. …” she said.)
  • There were far too many question tags within dialogue. Characters seemed to continuously end sentences with “OK?” or “Right?”. This is not unexpected as a speech pattern in real-life but in fiction it’s distracting and it becomes an odd writer’s quirk when it happens in the dialogue of four or more characters who don’t even know each other. There were also an uncommonly high number of repeated descriptions. For example:

“Because the children were asleep on the office floor. Hubble’s kids. Ben and Lucy. Sprawled out on a pile of empty burlap sacks. Fast asleep, wide open and innocent like only sleeping children can be. They were filthy and ragged. Still dressed in their school clothes from Monday. They looked like ragamuffins in a sepia picture of old New York. Sprawled out, fast asleep.”

  • The only female characters in the book (one a theoretically competent policewoman) ended up in a perilous situation that required they be rescued by the men in the story
  • Despite his civilian status and personal stake in the murder, Reacher’s presence in the investigation was invited/accepted by Finlay which is a common device in books but an eye-roller nonetheless
  • Lee Child employs the “Checkov’s gun” literary technique where “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” In this book, few/no extraneous details are included that don’t become significant plot items later. I tend to prefer more textual camouflage in my stories

The narration was very good. Dick Hill paced his delivery perfectly to keep the story moving forward and portray the tension of the action scenes. I didn’t hear the expected Boston accent when Finley spoke but he did have a lovely James Earl Jones-sounding voice – a fact that made it dangerous for me to listen to this audio when I was ready for bed because I would inevitably fall asleep during long scenes with Finlay’ soothing voice lulling me. I didn’t buy the female voices Hill created but that’s a consistent problem between me and most male narrators so I’ll take the blame for that one. Reacher was given a nice blend of cool practicality combined with just enough emotional inflection to prevent the listener from disconnecting from his character.

An enjoyable audiobook with action sequences that carry the story along nicely. There are some “first book” writing issues that will hopefully smooth out as I progress through the series.

The Informationist by Taylor Stevens

The Informationist by Taylor StevensThe Informationist by Taylor Stevens
Narrator: Hillary Huber
Series: Vanessa Michael Munroe #1
Published by Random House Audio on 3/8/11
Genres: Suspense

Story: B
Narration: B

The Informationist

This audiobook is an engaging thriller with excellent pacing, an intriguing setting, a protagonist you may or may not like (but will feel compelled to follow), well-constructed supporting characters, and good narration. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Will I buy the next one in this series (out in late December)? Yes. In audio, please.

The Woman

Vanessa “Michael” Munroe is a complex woman. Raised in central Africa by missionary parents, her uncanny facility for languages in combination with an adolescence spent on the wrong side of the law has given her a unique skill-set. She makes her living gathering information, usually from third world countries, on behalf of large corporations. She’s also a bit of a feral creature. Oh, she maneuvers in society just fine but she’s never lost her atavistic instinct for taking in all available stimuli and interpersonal cues and generating a threat assessment. This is a large part of what makes her so successful: her ability to identify the right buttons to push to get people to talk and a near-psychic talent at wringing every possible nuance out of a conversation. Her professional life allows her respite from her inner turmoil but when she isn’t working, she’s an adrenaline junkie who uses the thrill of pushing herself to the limit to manage her inner demons. And oh boy, does she have demons.

The Assignment

When her friend and lawyer (and what I can only describe as her handler) Kate Breeden calls her from Texas with an assignment, Munroe reluctantly agrees to fly from Turkey to Dallas to meet with the man making the job offer. Richard Burbank, head of Titan Oil, offers Munroe more money than she can turn down to find out what happened to his daughter. Emily Burbank disappeared several years previously while touring Africa with two companions. Munroe is intrigued by the complexity of following the cold trail and finds herself drawn back to the region where she grew up. Richard’s security consultant, Miles Bradford, has compiled a dossier of the investigative efforts to-date and when the contents of that file send Munroe to Germany to interview the only one of Emily’s companions known to have made it out of Africa, she is able to determine that Emily’s trail disappeared in Equatorial Guinea. Forced to allow Miles to accompany her, Munroe travels to Africa.

The Place it all Began

(I’ve marked this next bit as a potential spoiler. Personally I don’t consider it one but since it references events not specifically detailed until mid-way into the book and they have a direct impact on what makes Munroe the person she is I decided ‘better safe that burned at the spoiler stake’)

View Spoiler »

Now back in Equatorial Guinea, Munroe is working her way through a corrupt political apparatus looking for clues to Emily’s location. A betrayal nearly ends her life and sends her in search of Francisco Beyard and the help he is uniquely suited to give her. Unresolved issues between them makes for an uneasy alliance as they continue the search for the missing woman and try to determine exactly who wants Munroe dead.

I love books that take me someplace I have no real concept of (They speak Spanish in Equatorial Guinea? I had no idea.) The people and locations in Africa are described in a way that allowed me to build a strong mental picture of how the characters interacted with their physical world. In conjunction with well-crafted secondary characters, this negated the two minor complaints I had which were an inability to really connect with Munroe until close to the end of the story because of her ultra-practical and unemotional decision-making and a wish to hear more emotion conveyed in the narration. The pacing in this story kept me glued to my earphones and the unraveling of who was responsible for which nefarious deed, while not providing a huge surprise at the end, did include some interesting twists in motivations.

Hillary Huber’s narration was good. Her vocal style matched well with Munroe’s tough-as-nails persona and her male character voices were excellent. The various voices were easily distinguished from one another and, although I have zero basis for comparison, the accents employed sounded good and never gave me pause in regards to their authenticity. I didn’t pull as much emotional content from the narration as I think the story indicated but the silky and inexorable delivery worked extremely well with the story’s pacing.

The Part Where I Realize I Still Have More to Say But Not in Any Kind of Organized Fashion

It’s not surprising that I enjoyed Munroe’s character and deconstructing her motivations; she reminds me of a combination of two of my favorite mystery/thriller tough female survivors: my intro to that character type when I was in junior high, Modesty Blaise from the Peter O’Donnell books/comics, and the heart-breaking and completely sociopathic Kathy Mallory from Carol O’Connell’s incredibly well-written series. Munroe has a nice blend of the amazing survival skills of the former combined with the “I’m not quite sure you’re psychologically sound” aspect of the latter.

I’m rather fond of the character construct wherein the protagonist emerges from a difficult past stronger than might be expected (usually with fissures in their emotional armor that blow open spectacularly at some point). I think of it as a version of the post-apocalyptic scenario except it’s an emotional apocalypse and we get to watch how those who survive start to put the pieces of their life back together and even thrive in their changed emotional landscape. Munroe certainly fits that bill. While I found her a fascinating character to watch as she wound her way through the story, I remained at an emotional distance. It was a little bit like watching a bug trying to navigate a man-made obstacle course. Objectively interesting but I don’t necessarily feel a personal interest in its success. In part, I think it is because as written, Munroe spends the majority of the story with an extremely practical outlook. For example, her decision making process in regards to sexual encounters was generally “how will it benefit me?” and sex was used as a tool to manipulate the other person.

Without a doubt, Munroe is an intriguing character. I get the impression that being around her would be a bit like having a maltreated pit bull around. She could very well tear out your throat if she feels you’re a threat but she can also snuggle up beside you, usually for her own reasons. Her fear of becoming the monster that Willem was making of her has driven her to keep such a tight reign on all her emotions that she’s lost contact with all but the anger that fuels her and when she is forced to face/feel a strong ‘positive’ emotion (such as love or fear for the welfare of others) it’s like water on the fire that drives her survival and she feels like “…a fire without a source of fuel”.

Her ability to tease meaning from conversations was, as mentioned above, bordering on psychic. Nominally defined as a hyper-alertness to inflection, I think I would have bought into it more if it had been described differently: perhaps as an awareness and ability to read micro-expressions and eye movement as well as her ability to interpret inflection to such a high degree that seems to be part of her uncanny language skills.

Overall, a good listen and one I recommend.