American Blood by Ben Sanders (Minotaur Books, 2015) 339 pages
I bought this book because I thought it would be interesting the read a thriller/crime book written by a New Zealander about events in New Mexico, specifically Santa Fe and Albuquerque. I did wonder why a writer from New Zealand would think that New Mexico is filled with raging drug dealers and gangs who go around terrorizing everyone and murdering and torturing as they liked. Then I realized the answer: Breaking Bad. People probably think that show is some kind of documentary.
My own memories of central New Mexico are different. My memories of Santa Fe involve Georgia O’Keefe landscapes and colorful bluffs. My impressions of Albuquerque are of the pastel blues and reds of the highways (yes, the highways) and sharing an elevator and breakfast with Britney Spears at the Doubletree hotel downtown, after I caught her show at the big mall across town (now, there’s a story…she was really small and talkedreallyfast, like that).
I didn’t spend a lot of time in either place looking for drugs or bad guys, but I’m sure the area is a lot less violent than Sander’s book makes it out to be. The blurb mentions the book and movie No Country for Old Men, but the country in this book has no old men at all: I doubt anyone of the crooks who bother people or the cops who chase them could possibly survive long enough to reach old age.
That’s not to say that Sanders is not a good writer, or that the book is unbelievable. The book moves right along, and you can blast through it. Many scenes are dialog-heavy, and the chapters are only a few thousand words long. There are three main point-of-view characters: the hero, a local narcotics police woman, and one of the main bad guys. The hero is Marshall, an ex-Special Forces and New York cop who ends up in witness protection in Santa Fe. The book blurb says he is “racked with guilt” and “seeking atonement” but I didn’t see any of that in the book itself. I think old Marshall is just the kind of action junkie that drives books like this forward. It could probably be a series (the story ends with that possibility) with Marshall Grade as Jack Reacher, but no human could survive the risky business that Marshall indulges in day after day. (In fairness, the action takes place over a bit more than 48 hours, so maybe this mayhem only happens occasionally.)
The local narc is a woman named Lauren Shore who drinks a lot because she lost her son Liam when he chased some burglars from the house and they shot him (page 17 and 270). Welcome to vigilante America, the book seems to say: this is the greatest country in the world, but you aren’t safe in your own home unless you’re packing heat at all times.
The third POV character is Rojas. He’s in it only for the money, and betrays his boss when the boss (Leon) assassinates a wounded comrade instead of risking taking him to the hospital. Then they chop several people up in the basement and dissolve them in acid. This is instead of, you know, putting them in the secret room with Alyce Ray and rest of the women they have captured because they might be witnesses, or just because they liked the way they looked (seriously: that’s all on page 329). But I had a hard time swallowing Rojas’s sudden attack of squeamishness.
The three main characters are joined now and then by a federal marshal who is Marshall’s witness protection contact and an assassin from New York who is sent out to see if Marshall might be around. The fed’s main role seem to be to help the heroes when it would be absolutely impossible to believe that one man (or woman) could take out four or five really bad folks. It’s fun, but often resorts to the old James Bond problem: the good guys always kill the bad guys, but the bad guys always tie the good guys up because they don’t want blood on the carpet or whatever. 🙂
The New York bad guy is “the Dallas Man” who is sent to wipe out a rival gang and find Marshall for the NY mob, if he’s around. He is, and this cold-blooded killer has a young daughter who he calls right after a hit. At first I found this touch repulsive, and then I kind of liked that this reptilian killer could have any emotions at all.
What happened in NY that sent Marshall out to New Mexico for protection? He went undercover as a fake crooked cop and was forced to either blow his cover or ignore a great injustice (to reveal more would be a major spoiler). The story is told in chapter-section flashbacks that occur at an increasing pace as the book goes on. I almost missed them because the “2010” header to flag flashbacks is only regular text that has been bolded. They are on pages 74, 149, 176, 214, 239, 258, and 273. I liked that device, and writers can learn a lot about pacing and handling back story from Sanders.
Sanders writes well too. I flagged some really nice passages: “One of those mornings when she woke and it was nearly twelve. Still dressed and laid diagonally on tangled sheets, her feet at the pillow and a thin stripe of sunlight across the darkened room.” And this: “She went into the bathroom and looked at herself in the mirror, finger-combed her hair. She put an inch of water in the glass that stood at the basin and knocked it back like a shot.” Both of these are on page 60, and haven’t we all had a morning or two like that?
The biggest issue I had with the book was the reason that Marshall risks his life over and over to help a missing local girl named Alyce Ray. Alyce’s photo reminds him of someone in New York (a lover) the book reminds us over and over, but I’m not sure that’s a good enough reason to blaze a path of destruction up and down I-25. Speaking of I-25, I checked most of the geographical clues about New York and New Mexico and they show that, if Sanders has never been to either place, the Internet can make you an expert on a lot of things.
But I didn’t get the whole thing about Marshall and Stella beer (page 4 and 309). I know it’s big in New Zealand, but I can’t recall ever seeing anyone sipping one in a dive bar anywhere. If you want someone not to know where you come from by the beer you drink (the supposed Stella reason), get a Bud Light.
Also, please don’t have a character named Marshall and other characters who are New Mexico Marshals. My eye ground to halt every time I saw that in print: is that one “l” or two? Marshall or the Marshal?
Bottom line, if you want to find new ways to kill (cutlery—forks and spoons—play a major role on pages 80 and 201) or find out addresses with social engineering (page 238), all wrapped in a well-written package, this is the book for you.