Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Head and Shoulders Above the Average Crime Novel

John Hart
February 2, 2020
St. Martins Books

"We, the unwilling, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful."

Every time I open a new John Hart crime novel, I know that I am in for a challenging and thrilling read. I also wonder if he can surpass his previous books. The Unwilling does not disappoint. Part family drama, part crime thriller, part coming-of-age story, and part examination of the different aspects of brotherhood, The Unwilling grabs hold immediately and does not let go.

Charlotte, NC detective Bill French and his wife, Gabrielle, have lost more than their fair share in the disastrous Viet Nam War. One son, Robert, was killed less than one year into his deployment. The second son, Jason, came home after almost three tours bitter, alienated, addicted to heroin, and dishonorably discharged. Jason quickly falls into the world of drugs, guns, and biker gangs. The third son, Gibson, is everybody's favorite; athletic, smart, funny, and kind. He will soon graduate from high school and hit 18 when he has to register for the draft. Gibby has no real doubts about what he should do, follow in the footsteps of his brothers. Gibby's best friend, Chance, has different thoughts about his future. Chance has already reached 18 and failed to register.

Jason has been in an infamous prison, built originally in the 1860s, on a drug conviction. It's known as a hellhole, but no one who hasn't been there knows exactly how much. The prison is in the iron control of an infamous criminal known as "X." Jason has been out for several weeks and living in a halfway house in Raleigh but has not contacted his family. Jason does not know, for sure, anyway, that "X" has taken a particular interest in him and wants him back inside. Gibby and Jason reconnect, despite the elder French's wishes. A trip into the countryside with two young women leads to an encounter with a prison bus and one of the young women's hideous death. Jason is immediately a suspect, and when the other young woman disappears, Gibby is suspected as well. Now, Bill French must balance his duties as a policeman, father, and the support of his fragile wife.

In the hands of a lesser writer, "X" would be a cartoonish supervillain, as well as his minion, the detestable Reese. A lesser writer would not be able to draw all the narrative threads into a cohesive whole. There are descriptions of stomach-churning violence and depravity, contrasted with the solid friendship between Gibby, Chance, and Gibby's first love, Becky.
He has created indelible characters that will be with me for a long time, and I would love to see them again. John Hart has been known to do that.

I may have to rethink the whole "star" rating. The Unwilling is head and shoulders above any other crime novel I have read in quite a while. So I will enthusiastically give it two 'thumbs up".
Thanks to St.Martin's and Net Galley for an advance digital copy. The opinions are my own.

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