Redemption Road - John Hart
Redemption Road - John Hart ***
There's so much backstory to catch up with at the start of Redemption Road that you might think it is the latest in a long running series featuring North Carolina police detective Elizabeth Black. Hart however doesn't write books frequently enough to develop a long running series, but he makes up for it by bunging in a career's worth of cases and personal drama for Liz Black into just one book. You can't help think however that, as exciting a crime novel as this makes Redemption Road, it's stretching things to try to take it all in one go, even if the history extends back a number of years.
Redemption Road begins then with the hangover from at least two cases that to all intents and purposes have been already "solved". One of them involves Adrian Wall, a former police detective who was once a partner of Elizabeth Black on the force, as well as being the inspiration for her career in the police. He has just served 13 years in prison for the murder of a woman who was his lover, her body left in the church of Elizabeth's father, Reverend Black. Just released, in a far worse condition than he went in, Adrian is not long getting back into the headlines, first involved in a shooting and then suspected of the murder of another woman found laid out again in the old church. Liz however is sticking by him, unconvinced of his guilt.
The police detective however has other more pressing concerns that could prevent her from aiding Adrian. She is currently being investigated for her part in the rescue of a young girl who had been kidnapped and raped. Forensics indicate that Channing's captors have been brutally tortured and executed with no less than 18 shots fired. As the men were black, political tensions are high and police relations with that community are low, it doesn't look good and questions are going to have to be answered. Liz however isn't cooperating and has been suspended. Channing isn't deviating from an unsatisfactory explanation either, but there is clearly something both women are hiding in relation to this.
If you think that sounds like you've arrived late to the crime party, that the more interesting cases have been occurred and are only needing some resolution to wrap them up, well there are quite a few more twists involved, a lot more developments to come, more revelations and secrets about the past to be uncovered, and more than a few more deaths to occur in Redemption Road. There's quite a bit happening, rather more than you would imagine is conceivable in just a few days in this small part of the world, but there's no question that it makes for a thrilling crime investigation. Credibility comes secondary to readability, but that also means that Hart makes more than a few concessions to convention. Redemption Road is a great read then, but far from original as a crime thriller.
Basically, Liz Black is the very definition of the maverick cop, working against the odds, suspended for her actions, fighting against injustice, even if it means bending a few rules. She's right and everyone else is wrong. She has no evidence to the contrary and relies on a gut feeling and even something of an infatuation with Adrian Wall, but no-one else is buying it. This of course makes her a nuisance who creates tensions among her colleagues and makes their lives difficult. That's not the only cliché in the characterisation. There's a killer operating - in italics of course, so that you know he's a bit unstable - and it would seem that there's a personal angle to his killings that involves Liz and marks her out as a potential target.
All this is fairly standard, but all the personal issues and professional conflicts at a time of heightened tensions on a couple of ongoing cases that are making all the headlines contribute to making Redemption Road an involving and thrilling read. The overall tone and the underlying philosophy is however in questionable taste, with Hart working in moral certainties and manipulating events to suit them. We're left in no doubt who the true villains are by the ruthlessness of their actions, but it would seem that the 'heroes' of the book may also be permitted allowances to operate according to their own moral compass, even if it means breaking a few laws and a few bones. It's expressed by one of the few colleagues on Liz's side, James Randolph, who falls back on the old "broken system" line; "Sometimes justice matters more than the law". This could also apply to a view that appears to support the idea of citizens and youths being allowed to carry and use guns 'for their own safety'.
Hart exploits this kind of reasoning to justify the increasing levels of death and violence that takes place on both sides of the ambiguous moral dividing line he has established. The only winner here is going to be the one who is more ruthless and determined, but if both carry weapons, Hart's faulty logic puts the odds in favour those on the side of 'justice'. Pushing the drama to a near hysterical pitch, arming both sides and giving them licence to sort things out by whatever means are necessary inevitably results in a high bodycount bloodbath shootout. Having started out trying to settle down the political fallout of an officer killing two black men, I wouldn't like to be the senior officer in the Epilogue responsible for trying to unravel the history and explain how the police let this particular situation spin so wildly out of control. Somehow, I can't see anyone buying a story like this in the real world, but perhaps the reader of crime fiction might be a little more tolerant.
Redemption Road by John Hart is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 5th May 2016.