Thursday, May 29, 2008

THE COLD SPOT by Tom Piccirilli

Bantam Press, 2008, $6.99, 9780553590845

Chase has been a getaway driver all his life. After the death of his parents, he’s been raised by his grandfather Jonah, brought up in a world of thieves and grifters and con artists. He’s a born driver, but maybe not a born criminal. After witnessing his grandfather’s dispatch of one of his own gang, Chase decides its time to get out.

He never counted on falling in love with a cop.

Building something close to a normal life.

And he really didn’t plan on having all of that taken away.

Tom Piccirilli was the man responsible for last year’s wonderful noir masterpiece, The Fever Kill, and here he turns back to the crime genre again with the incredible, The Cold Spot, a brilliantly paced revenge thriller with a genuinely human heart. When we think of getaway drivers, its easy to think of them being akin to a Parker character: cold, uninvolved and professional. Think what they tried to do with Jason Stratham’s character in the movie, The Transporter or, as a far better example, the character of Lennon in Duane Swierczynski’s The Wheel Man. And, sure, Piccirilli makes Chase an absolute professional, but here he fleshes out that archetype by giving him…

… a life.

The first half of the book, taken up as it is with Chase’s life could seem like so much unnecessary window dressing if it weren’t for the fact that Piccirilli knows how important it is to get us to understand his hero. Any good revenge drama relies on us being on the side of the revenger, understanding his psychology. It has to be more complex than some archetypal revenge fantasy a-la Deathwish if we to truly feel anything. And Piccirilli is a master at helping us to empathise with his cast. He’s been at this game a long time and even his most despicable creations seem to have been at least comprehensible to the reader. But Chase… he must be a good man at heart for this to work. We have to understand him beyond his role as Getaway Driver, and by seeing him leave the life, fall in love, build a normal existence… we are on his side. We know what he has worked for to have all of this. He has given up many things, adjusted his world view, made sacrifices and ultimately – despite his past – he deserves this quiet, peaceful, beautiful new life.

So when it is snatched away by a gang of criminals with itchy trigger fingers, we understand his rage and frustration and loss. We are right there with him. We can feel the sense of, why did this have to happen? Why wasn’t I there to stop this?

And we understand why Chase can only turn to one man for help in finding the cold spot, that place inside of him that will help take revenge like he was taking care of business. We understand why he turns to his grandfather Jonah, the man he took such great pains to leave behind in the first place.

The relationship between Chase and Jonah that takes up much of the second half of the book is a complex and unsettling double act. Jonah represents a dark side of Chase that he doesn’t want have to confront, but is something he must control and use if he is to heal those wounds inside of him. As Chase constantly walks the line between the life he wants and the life that Jonah offers, we find the central conflict of the book, and indeed of any good revenge drama: will the act of revenge change our character beyond recognition? Turn him into the very thing he is reacting against?

It’s a tension that Piccirilli exploits beautifully in the last third of the book without offering any overly easy answers or guarantees of salvation. Indeed anyone who’s read Piccirilli’s work before will know that he doesn’t offer guarantees in his stories. And that uncertainty is what keeps those pages turning.

Throw into the mix some larger themes that set the groundwork for further books in the series. As the story draws to a close, we find some answers about Chase’s life that change everything we thought we knew. We find hints of a darkness that could push him even further over the edge. This is the ideal of a series; resolve the major questions, but leave enough hanging that readers will want to follow you onto the next novel.

The Cold Spot is a gripping and powerful novel from an author who makes fans out of almost everyone who reads his work. The prose hums with a visceral energy that’ll keep you turning those pages. I finished it fast, thought about it for days afterwards. And really, there’s no better recommendation than simply: read this book. But be warned: once you hit that last page, you’ll be dying to read 2009’s The Coldest Mile.