The Shadow Catchers

by Thomas Lakeman

Published by St. Martin's Minotaur

336 pages, 2006







Dyer Straights

Reviewed by David Thayer


In Dyer County, Nevada, FBI Special Agent Mike Yeager is running from the tragic results of a child-kidnapping case he recently mishandled back in Philadelphia. He thinks a trip to southern Nevada to photograph the Sangre de los Niños Mountains at sunset might help him forget that investigation as well as the woman -- fellow agent Peggy Weaver -- he left behind. But Yeager has chosen a harsh environment in which to rekindle his spirit. And he hasn't made his sudden exit from the East Coast any easier by failing to help people comprehend it, including his lover.

If Peggy didn't understand why I had to leave Philadelphia, it was a sure bet that nobody would. And there was no way I could make her see. Peggy's mind worked in straight lines and well-lit passages. That was the first thing I noticed about her, as soon as I was done noticing her auburn hair and hazel eyes and the pleasant way she filled out her regulation black suit.

Thomas Lakeman's debut novel, The Shadow Catchers, brings together a number of elements familiar from the world of crime fiction. A university professor in Alabama, he constructs with those pieces a surprisingly intelligent and gripping yarn based on what is a classic set-up: a stranger comes to town, only to find himself mixed up in trouble. Yeager is the reluctant hero and feared outsider, a character so familiar from classic westerns that you can almost hear his spurs jingling a mile away; however, the setting of Shadow Catchers is decidedly modern -- even the locals carry cell phones.

The author wastes little time in plunging Yeager into a confrontation that sets the tone for the rest of his story with brutal assurance. Yeager intervenes when a boy is roughed up in a parking lot, fighting against a 300-pound ex-Marine named Dale Dupree. Lieutenant Jackson Tippet of the Dyer County Sheriff's Office arrives, only to cuff Yeager, expressing scorn for the feds in no uncertain terms.

With his car impounded, Yeager is placed under house arrest, and must spend time at the Lucky Strike Motel in beautiful San Cristobal, Nevada.

Not a lot of time, though. Dale Dupree soon contacts Yeager, explaining that his daughter, Cassie, is missing. But by the time Yeager reaches Dupree's place, Dale has been murdered and his child kidnapped. The closest thing to a witness is a neighbor whose eyesight and sobriety make her version of events easy to dismiss.

Yeager, naturally, becomes the prime suspect in the Dupree case. After Tippett and another deputy pick him up, our hero is taken to see the sheriff.

We passed nothing of beauty on the long drive north to Langhorne, only miles of fences with potato chip bags hung on the barbed wire. Skinny, pink-eyed cows nosed through cheatgrass near the skeletons of their lost calves. Trailers stood on lousy foundations beside rusted swing sets that had no children to play on them. Dead lizards lay flattened by the side of the road. The sky was corpse-white, the Sangre de los Niños a barren gray. This was Dyer County without makeup.

Lakeman enmeshes the reader in a complex story with roots in the past, a grim past shared by many local residents. Children have been victimized in Dyer County before, and when he gets a chance, Yeager forms an uneasy alliance with Connor Blackwell, a clinical psychologist. Blackwell seems to be a kindred spirit -- soft-spoken, educated, and concerned about the late Dale Dupree's missing daughter.

These two are up against some heavy opposition, though. Sheriff Rafe W. Archer is the epitome of a frontier lawman -- long, lean, armed with a Colt Buntline Special. Archer is more than a sheriff; he's a patriarch who rules his community with blunt authority. He's also the target of a recall campaign, and his lead deputy, Detective Tippett, appears to be in the enemy camp, supporting the recall effort on behalf of a local businessman. Archer's son-in-law is the local preacher, a man whose family is falling apart, but who remains stubbornly in the path of Yeager's investigation.

After a suspicious fire claims Tippett's life, Yeager begins to see a connection between the current child abduction and an incident that occurred decades earlier, involving Archer's younger daughter and her current boyfriend, Pete Fontaine. Pete is San Cristobal's resident bad boy, a handy suspect for murder and kidnapping, and a man Sheriff Archer despises. But Pete has another connection to Archer, one buried in the past. Decades of lies and deceit are about to come full circle in a fresh wave of mayhem that threatens to consume Archer, his family, and a new generation of victims.

The Shadow Catchers deals with children in peril, a subject with which not every reader will feel comfortable. Thomas Lakeman traverses this difficult terrain with skill and an eye for describing the subtleties of long-term abuse. There is no sense of exploitation, because the author presents a balanced picture of the grim events that Rafe Archer and the rest of the folks in fictional Dyer County are so eager to conceal. Much of the story is revealed here through internal monologue, and the author relies on his characters' fears and obsessions to create tension. Probing these dark recesses can make for a quiet story at times, although toward the end of the novel, Lakeman displays his aptitude for writing action sequences.

The Colt fired wild. I fell hard against the side of the truck. There was no pain in my right hand, and for a few seconds I thought he might have cut it off. My attacker raised his sword high. I rolled away and it cut through my jacket like gauze, striking sparks off the truck body. That gave me a bead on him. I dealt a side thrust kick straight into his solar plexus. He landed with a dull sound.

The author manages to evoke empathy for many of the damaged characters who populate this novel, including difficult players such as Fontaine and Archer. But the rapid pacing in Lakeman's climactic scenes makes some of the final events confusing. The complexity of the plot rebels against this author's deliberate style. Structurally, there is a lot to resolve in those final pages of The Shadow Catchers, with a great many characters in crisis. The glut of details, apparently meant to mask problems with the plot, only contributes to a rushed air. And hints of supernatural -- or at least super-human -- forces at work lay in a rather discordant Gothic undertone. The child victims in this yarn who have matured into adults still fear the monster of their youth, and what appears to be myth becomes all too real in the story's climax.

This is an impressive debut novel from a writer with a great deal to add to the crime-fiction canon. | November 2006


David Thayer is a Seattle freelance writer and author of the blog One More Bite of the Apple. He's also a published poet, his work having appeared in an anthology as well as literary magazines. Thayer has recently completed a crime novel, the beginning of a series about cops in the New York Police Department's Intelligence Division.