The Next Time You Die
by Harry Hunsicker
Published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne
304 pages, 2006
Small Triumphs in "Big D"
Reviewed by Stephen Miller
"Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer." This, of course, is one of the great pearls of wisdom that Michael Corleone dispensed in The Godfather. The theme of friends and enemies lies at the center of The Next Time You Die, Harry Hunsicker's second entry in the Lee Henry Oswald series. It's a theme well worth stating, and Hunsicker delivers it well, but getting there can require some patience.
Oswald -- "Hank" to his friends -- is a standard-issue gumshoe working in Dallas, Texas. In Next Time, he is hired by a perpetually inebriated Baptist preacher named Lucas Linville to recover a file stolen from his office. That file contains potentially embarrassing information about a young charge left in the pastor's care -- the son of wealthy benefactors who would not want Junior's particular peccadilloes broadcast. The file is believed to have been pilfered by a church employee, who one day simply stopped returning to work. Oswald tracks down the errant employee in good time, only to find that his quarry has assumed room temperature and an "ear-to-ear scarlet smile where his throat should have been." Just prior to this discovery, however, the P.I. passes an odd character in the hallway of the tenement where the deceased has been living.
Halfway up I brushed past a man in a seersucker suit and a white button-down shirt. He was completely bald, his skin the color of vanilla ice cream. The odor of Old Spice aftershave trailed after him.
Oswald immediately pegs that man in the seersucker suit and Old Spice as one bad dude, and the reader knows instinctively that he'll be appearing later in the book.
Not content to simply be chasing a church file, Oswald also takes on a second case. This one has him protecting Tess McPherson, the 20-something daughter of a business associate of Texas state Senator Vernon Black. Black ambiguously warns Oswald that "there are forces that are aligned against us" and that "good people make bad choices sometimes," which explains to Oswald and his partner, Nolan O'Connor (an ex-police profiler and woman-of-action right out of Kill Bill) all they need to know. So off they go to start bodyguarding the attractive but headstrong Ms. McPherson. (I'm glad those two understood Black's cryptic cautioning, because I sure didn't). Once they arrive at McPherson's apartment, though, Oswald is again confronted by a bald man wafting Old Spice, who manages to get the jump on both detectives in an elevator.
Simmering alongside this heapin' helpin' of too-hot Texas chili is Hank Oswald's back story, which involves his boyhood friend Billy Barringer, the son of the head of the East Texas mafia. Billy was believed to have been killed shortly after escaping from a maximum-security prison (to which Hank helped send him), but everyone Oswald runs into now swears that Billy is alive.
In between Hunsicker's fairly docile scenes of exposition and explanation are numerous set pieces consisting of fights, threats of fights, weapons being swiftly drawn, and spontaneous moments of urban street theater -- enough that the reader is left to wonder how Oswald and his partner make it through the day without having to reach for their health insurance cards. Nolan herself is one walking short fuse; in between reconciliations with a useless fiancé, which cause her to disappear from the narrative, she steps back onto the scene at points when she's most needed.
If all of this sounds pretty Dennis Lehane-ish to you, you're not alone. Several times during my reading of The Next Time You Die, I wondered if this was Lehane's Patrick Kenzie/Angela Gennaro series (A Drink Before the War, Prayers for Rain, etc.) with a Texas accent. Everything from the Pure Evil villains, to the highly-competent-investigator-yet-unlucky-in-love Nolan, to Olson, the third-wheel gun-dealer sidekick who has an amazing propensity for violence, reminds the reader that a lot of this has been done before. There's very little in The Next Time You Die that qualifies as original material.
But then, suddenly, Hunsicker surprises you with an exceptional final 100 pages.
Once Billy Barringer arrives on the scene (and for those who are going to accuse me of revealing a spoiler, please re-read the title of this book), the gears shift and The Next Time You Die becomes a thoroughly compelling account of friendship, loyalty, and coming to grips with the imperfections of one's past. Oswald and Barringer, two loners on opposite sides of the law, come to reignite the friendship that dominated their formative years. Although it's clear, even to Oswald, that his old friend is using him to settle scores and wipe out adversaries, the adhesive bond between these two men can scarcely be broken. The constant references in the book to how nasty Barringer can be, and how scared everyone should be that he might be alive, don't deter Hank from being secretly glad that his old friend is still around.
The first book in this series, Still River, stands nominated for a Private Eye Writers of America Shamus Award in the category of Best First Novel published in 2005, and it was enormously popular among critics and readers alike. With reason: When Hunsicker allows himself to explore his characters fully, his work can be most satisfying. In The Next Time You Die, though, the amped-up action that dominates the first two-thirds of the book pales by comparison with the rest of his story, in which volumes are conveyed in silences, just the sort that longtime friends are wont to share.
While The Next Time You Die struck me as overly dependent on pyrotechnics and tough-sounding dialogue that tends to prove the law of diminishing returns, the payoff is there. Perhaps the next time he writes, Harry Hunsicker will strike the proper balance. | August 2006