It’s been six or seven years since I picked up Whiskey Sour, the first Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels novel. That book introduced Jack, a tough female homicide lieutenant on the trail of a serial killer. Jack was different than your average detective, or even female detective from the start. Yet, she shared a lot with other protagonists of the genre; she was over caffeinated, obsessed with catching the bad guy. She bucked her bosses, the Feds sent into help but who were more obsessed with protecting their territory and media presence. She had an overweight partner, Herb. But she was also a shop-aholic, dwelled on her sex life or lack there of, and made Emelda Marcos look a piker when it came to shoes and fashion.
The great thing about the Jack Daniels stories is they seemed to update the hardboiled genre, introducing dating websites, the internet, cell phone cameras, as well as other social trends that even the most up to date hardboiled noir seemed to want to ignore, or at least deal with superficially.
The books were always a bit over the top; the bad guys were super villains, with body counts that tobacco industry execs would have been proud of. But Konrath’s writing, his plot, dialog, and character development were so good, you’d get hung up in the story, and soon forget that. Mix in some wry humor, timely one-liners and an ability to maintain the action and tension for Olympic Record’s worth of page counts, and they were a winner.
Stirred, comes as what we are told is the last installment of the Jack Daniels series. Here it is six or seven years later (twenty plus years in Jackie time) and Jack is now retired and expecting a baby with her likeable criminal boyfriend, Phineas (Phin) Troutt and even contemplating marriage.
Entering the picture is Blake Crouch’s evilest killer, Luther Kite. Seems Luther has always been disappointed in his victims. Even the most heroic, the strongest of the strong break too easily. He needs a challenge and settles on Jack and her friends. The killings start in hideous fashion. A women is kidnapped and hung from a derelict railroad bridge while she was still alive. She was also gutted, and her entrails left to hang from her body as she slowly died. Jack is supposed to be retired, and at eight and a half months pregnant and suffering from eclampsia, is supposed to be taking it easy.
Soon another killing happens, and it has clues going back to the first. Then a pattern emerges and Jack has it all figured out. It appears that the killer is Luther Kite or Andrew Z. Thomas, a renegade author who also may just be a serial killer who also has ties to Luther. Just when Jack and her friends think they have trapped the killer, it turns out that the trap was set for them and that Luther Kite has planned this all along in order to break Jack in his own version of Dante’s Inferno.
Luther has acquired a derelict Michigan town/neighborhood that stands as its own monument to failed industry. He has transformed it into a kind of labyrinth along the lines of the backdrop in video games such as Quake and peopled it with kidnap victims who must act out Dante’s nine circles of hell as they imitate serial killers that Jack has met and conquered throughout her career.
The bait that Luther uses to make Jack run this gauntlet is her loved ones: Phin; Herb, her old partner, Harry McGlade, the wisecracking ex-partner and now a PI — and, of course, her unborn daughter and the other innocent victims Luther is using as pawns in his own private hell.
But, as the story plays out Luther finds out that even in her delicate condition, Jack Daniels is a worthy adversary, and her ”boys” are not beyond resourcefulness of their own.
Again, the plot is over the top and asks the reader to suspend the realm of reality in order to believe it. But the writing is so good, and the story unfolds with such rapidfire action that this is easily accepted. Violence is in abundance, but somehow the inherent evil of Luther Kite is even more abhorrent leaving the reader with a sense that there are worse things than senseless violence in life.
All in all, one helluva ride of a read. Konrath and Crouch know how to write memorial characters, and tell seat of the pants stories.
But, perhaps just as interesting is that, even though the story is written to where it can be read as a stand alone, something all writers of serials attempt, In the eBook version, there are hyperlinks to a sort of glossary of the characters and even story elements that might reference events and people that appeared in previous books and stories by both authors. This was a very nifty, and state of the art feature. I can see this being a huge reason to get hooked on eBooks as I have always been a reader that would stop and look up events, say historical happenings of real people that might appear in a book. Of course, this can break the atmosphere of a story, so having the ability to instantly reference these things from inside the book was fascinating to say the least.
I for one will be sad to see Jack Daniels go into retirement; she has been one fun and interesting character. But I don’t think we’ve heard the last of J.A. Konrath or Blake Crouch, and thank the book gods for that.