In Urban Waite’s debut novel The Terror of Living, the action revolves around two decent men on opposite sides of the law and one who is a soulless killing machine. The result is a pulse-pounding page turner built in spare, muscular prose.
Phil Hunt has been out of prison for 20 years. He’s built a life for himself; he’s married to a beautiful woman and raises horses on a nice patch of land in northern Washington state. Being an ex-con has made it hard for him to get regular work, however, and the horses don’t bring in enough, so he supplements his income with the occasional job hauling drugs through the mountains.
On his latest trip, Eddie, his contact, has sent him a kid new out of prison to help. Hunt is not sanguine about this but goes along with the plan. The kid makes a small mistake that draws the attention of deputy sheriff Bobby Drake, who goes off into the mountains on his own time to see what’s going on. Bobby’s father is in prison for having used his position as sheriff to run drugs, and Bobby feels he has something to prove.
Bobby’s vigilance is a bad thing for Hunt and the kid. It sets into motion the action for the rest of the book: Hunt on the run from both Bobby and the drug people, who have sent a blood-thirsty hit man named Grady after him. Through it all, we get to know both Hunt and Bobby, a couple of multifaceted characters who find they have more in common than they would ever have dreamed.
Waite’s story of these two men has a relentless, driving force that made it hard for me to put the book down. While Hunt and Bobby are drawn as complex characters, Grady is rather one-dimensional. (Are there people out there who are just pure evil, like this character?) Also, this is definitely a story about men; the women, Hunt’s and Bobby’s wives, are beautiful, patient, and brave, but not major players. The landscape, on the other hand, is well-portrayed, and the action could not be separated from it. In the sense that this is a story of a lawman from a rural state, it is in the vein of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men and puts me in mind of writers like Paul Doiron of Maine and Castle Freeman of Vermont. It is a fine debut that thriller readers should enjoy.