by James O. Born
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons
304 pages, 2005
Reviewed by Anthony Rainone
Do we really need another crime novelist setting his stories in Florida? That landscape -- both urban and rural -- has already been pretty thoroughly worked over by everyone from Charles Willeford and Carl Hiaasen, to John D. MacDonald and Edna Buchanan, to John Lutz, Jonathon King, Elmore Leonard and Carolina Garcia-Aguilera. The Sunshine State's appeal may be found in its abundance of miscreants worth depicting, or perhaps the overheated setting simply better stimulates a writer's imagination. It's harder to concentrate when you're freezing your nuts off in, say, Minneapolis.
Yet, despite the odds against him, James O. Born has managed to find a fresh perspective for his Miami police-procedural series, which features Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) special agent Bill Tasker. In Shock Wave, the second installment of this series -- following last year's critically acclaimed debut, Walking Money -- Tasker once again displays his "straitlaced" professionalism and passion for investigation. Tasker does have a dark side, though: he's not content with doing just a good job; he's obsessed with his work. It was because of this occupational zeal that his wife, Donna, divorced him and assumed sole custody of their two girls, 8-year-old Emily and 10-year-old Kelly, though she retains a soft spot for the earnest Florida lawman. Given the joy ride that is Shock Wave, the reader is likely to develop a soft spot for him, too.
This new book starts off modestly, with the 34-year-old Tasker involved in an undercover gun-buy sting ("It was small scale as far as undercover deals went: five pounds of pot for some supposedly untraceable handguns."). But Shock soon grows in complexity, as the sting leads to an arrested suspect pointing the way to another bad guy, who just happens to have a stinger missile for sale. Ultimately, this revelation will lead to a grander plot, in which a sociopath schemes to blow up a very public venue.
Author Born, an FDLE agent himself by trade, builds his straightforward plot using real-time criminal case development, where a single piece of evidence can sometimes reveal a bigger crime scenario. (For example, it's only after Tasker and a cohort bust a fugitive on a warrant unrelated to the stinger case, that they discover a name which brings them back to the stinger players.) From personal experience, Born knows the perp ego and personality well, and he sets his novel on the shoulders of a psychologically well-drawn bomber.
He had plans that had to be set in motion. Big plans. It was really all he could think about anymore. Even while he sat in jail over the weekend, his mind worked out the details that would make him a success. He'd put on a show that everyone would remember. That's what he lived for anymore -- putting on the shows. Although he had been setting small fires and playing pranks since he was five, the real urge, the feeling that kept him sane, had kicked in during his senior year in high school ... the noise and smoke were enough to give him shudders of delight.
This story is no run-of-the-mill whodunit; nor is it necessarily a what's-going-to-happen-next suspenser. The reader is never in the dark about the bomber's determination to take down something really big. What isn't known, however, is the intended target -- and whether Tasker and his task force can stop the bomber in time. With its tempo clicking like a timer on an explosive, Shock Wave makes for one compelling read.
Assisting Tasker in these pages is his good friend Derrick Sutter, a Miami police detective, who lives in a South Beach pad. Sutter is frustrated with his assignments for the cash-strapped Miami force, and he dearly wants a piece of the "bigger cases" that the FDLE and Tasker commonly work ("He loved Miami, but was beginning to see there was a whole wide world out there."). In one of the many humorous episodes in this tale, Sutter takes part in a police sweep, only to end up pursuing a suspect into a fried-chicken joint. Facing down Sutter's gun, the suspect desperately begins hurling chicken wings, one at a time, at the citified cop in a futile attempt to escape arrest. Another crucial member of Tasker's unit is newcomer and Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agent Camy Parks. With a killer body and the immediate, slavering attentions of the team's male members, Parks is initially suspected of being a lesbian ("I know she's supposed to play in the all-girl league."). Born has some fun with this speculation, as Sutter laments his lost opportunity to beguile and bed the attractive agent. Rounding out the task force is FBI special agent Jimmy Lail, a white man affecting ghetto lingo to hysterical effect ("Yo, my brother, we got that dawg in pound. For true."). Born has a sharp ear for language, both idiomatic cop-speak and on the criminal end -- a talent that first caught critics' attention in Walking Money.
After being set up by the FBI in that earlier novel, our hero has good cause to steer clear of the Feebies -- especially given their penchant for political machinations and fruitless skullduggery at the risk of jeopardizing public safety. Yet, on cue, the FBI latches onto the stinger missile case, because an arrest could enhance the agency's profile. And once again, the Feebies prove more a hindrance than helpful. When the stinger bust is improperly compromised by a federal agent making a false arrest, Tasker helps free the man -- who, unfortunately, later turns out to be the bomber. Nearly ostracized by the ATF and the FBI for helping to release this suspect, Tasker proceeds to set things right ("I'd do anything now to get him back inside."), helped at first by Sutter, and then later by Parks and Lail, as well.
As much as Shock Wave focuses on Bill Tasker the cop, Born also commits significant time to portraying his protagonist's family life. It turns out that, despite his work obsession, Tasker is a devoted and loving father -- even if he does contrive, at one point in this novel, to spend time with his daughters while he's surreptitiously canvassing a suspect's home. Tasker still feels the sting of losing his spouse, and the fact that Donna is now dating a lawyer doesn't help any. This vulnerability (well short of moroseness) is an appealing quality in Tasker. The tenderness he displays in relation to his daughters, along with his desire to make them happy, is downright touching.
A hundred other things seemed to press in on him as he tried to get control of his life. He needed to figure out exactly what he wanted. What would it take to be happy? The answer kept coming back to his girls. He needed to spend more time with them and less time worrying about the million things a police job can throw at you.
Capable of such tender sentiments as that, Tasker ought to be a "babe magnet" -- at least to single mothers. Near book's end, even Donna begins to show some renewed interest in her overdriven ex ("I was feeling lonely and missed you."), which makes one wonder whether a reunion is in store for this pair in an upcoming sequel.
The pulse of Shock Wave is steady, though edge-of-your-seat moments scattered throughout this yarn hit quickly, like punches. Fans of police procedurals will learn a great deal of realistic detail from this work ("He never used a radio on an undercover, just in case he forgot and left it on or the bad guys found it."). Facing an adversary who is more than an adept match for Tasker and his quirky team, success in the bombing case will depend on our hero's perseverance and deductive skills. Although the Feebies let him down again, Tasker's bravura more than makes up for that failure. Given today's heightened awareness of terrorists and the possibility of provocative bombings in this country, Born has hit upon a timely topic. And, thankfully, his decision to make this story's psycho an American prevents Shock from making the now-clichéd reach into racial fears. James O. Born is certain to increase his fan base with Shock Wave, a blast on every level. | May 2005
Anthony Rainone is a contributing editor of January Magazine.