An American Kill: cross-border conspiracy

AmericanKillAll hell breaks out one night in the dusty heat of the Texas-Mexico borderlands. Freshly-minted US Marshal John Whicher is on border patrol, staring into the dense, dangerous darkness of desert scrub. He’s there to snag up a coyote, a trafficker, one of the modern-day bandits who benefit from the misery of the Mexican illegals they shepherd (or abandon) in the badlands. There’s a flash of light; the crackle of rifle fire and all hell breaks loose. The combined / competing / conflicting US agencies couldn’t care less about five dead wetbacks. But Whicher is tasked to assist with the investigation into the murder of an American, and soon finds out he can’t draw the line between one dead human and another…

This is notionally the second in author John Stonehouse’s ‘Whicher’ series, but none of ‘An American Outlaw’ is relevant here as ‘Kill’ takes place a couple of decades earlier. So start with this novel, to immerse yourself in the dust and grime, the abrupt escalation of violence and scheming political intrigue on both sides of the border. Whicher is a young man, not long returned from the Gulf where he’s served military time. That’s just one of the many textural nuances which Stonehouse brings to this gritty investigation, along with a real talent for dragging the reader through the prickly palms and dry river beds to dim, derelict hunting camps, where bad men brood and life is dirty and cheap.

There’s real cadence to Stonehouse’s writing; you can hear the lilt and drawl in the speech. I’m reminded of James Crumley – The Mexican Tree Duck and many others – although Whicher is not beyond redemption, unlike many of Crumley’s characters. He is confused, however, feeling his way through a complex investigation which snakes back and forth across the border, from Mexican bordellos to the state FBI headquarters. The mystery is revealed to the reader through Whicher’s progress, so we’re as bemused, threatened and outraged as he is at each stage. He knows for almost-certain that some person in some law enforcement agency is rotten. But he doesn’t know who, and he’s the new boy on the block, so he can’t even trust his own superior. And certainly not a rogue FBI agent who abducts him at the point of a high-powered gun…

An American Kill demands your attention throughout. If you’ve read ‘Outlaw’ then you may be surprised by the pacing; ‘Kill’ is far less breathless and a much more measured read. There’s more substance to it, more social and personal philosophy; less run-n-gun. It raises many questions – some of which are beyond the scope of a thriller to answer. Stonehouse also takes some risks with his central character. We don’t become intimate or comfortable with Whicher; he remains distant from us, although we perceive events from his perspective. The plot and plight of the characters propel you eagerly through the pages but, in the final resolution, the protagonist remains – perhaps deliberately – indistinct and isolated.

It’ll be fascinating to see what happens next in Whicher’s career. If, indeed, that IS what happens in the next ‘American’ novel…

8/10

 

Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason

An American Kill by John Stonehouse is available as an ebook

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