Bad Signs is a terrific interpretation of the American ‘killer on the loose’ road movie, set in an expertly realised, rolling landscape of wide horizons and hidden, intimate horrors. Each sleepy small town presents itself to the travellers as the superficial embodiment of the American dream; each conceals the potential for brutality, hopelessness and despair.
If that sounds too grim for you then fear not; author RJ Ellory is an optimist at heart, it seems, and throughout his tapestry of anger, abandonment, pain and aggression he has woven a subtle but supportive thread of redemption and the possibility of goodness.
Set in the 1960s, the action concerns institutionalised orphaned half-brothers on the cusp of adulthood. The younger boy has long been dependent on and protected by his robust, bullish older brother while they’ve survived bitter lives in young offenders’ institutes. Swept up in a jailbreak they each must confront a coming-of-age initiation which carries with it the bleakest consequences possible. The boys have a straightforward choice between right and wrong: between love and hate; and, ultimately, between life and death.
The catalyst for the plot is a superb concoction of a character, an utterly reprehensible psycho-killer-scum who first takes the lads as hostages and then seemingly ‘adopts’ them, almost as pets as much as potential protégés. Earl Sheriden stands out as one of those most memorable fictional creations – an embodiment of everything awful who is capable of any outrage. The scenes with him at their core are the most powerful in the whole novel. It is his influence which will corrupt completely — or perhaps convince the boys to travel the path of righteousness.
And it is the moral choices of the two brothers which form the backbone of the story as the action travels along dusty highways through California and Texas, hauling ass between all-day diners and gas stations and leaving a trail of corpses and shattered families in its wake. Ellory explores how two similar people can diverge at a critical point; how people can choose to become good, or choose the alternative. Bad Signs is all about becoming: becoming a man, becoming a good man… or becoming something else.
This isn’t a ripping, rapid read or a quick thriller with a cut-price payoff. It rewards those readers who can become absorbed by the story, who are happy to spend a few days disappearing into this reality. Bad Signs is packed with dense description and careful character development set in a credible environment: you can almost smell the coffee brewing (…although a couple of chapters did feel as if they were written from a road map!).
The atmosphere overwhelmingly reminded me of Natural Born Killers, and Bad Signs is every bit as violent in places as the mayhem created by Micky and Mallory. But Bad Signs doesn’t succumb to the nihilistic sentiment which underpins NBK. Instead it holds out hope, even for those individuals who are most sorely abused by society and circumstance.
And it would make a cracking road movie, too.
Bad Signs is available as an ebook or paperback from Amazon
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