Review: Specter

In Bleeder, by John Desjarlais, we were introduced to philosophy professor Reed Stubblefield, who thought in Aristotle quotes. During a bit of R and R in the countryside, in a quiet, sleepy little village right out of a Miss Marple novel, he meets a priest, the local stigmatic. When the priest is murdered, Reed becomes the primary suspect.

What follows is an intricate, brilliant work that Agatha Christie would have been happy with.  Desjarlais’ prose is tight, erudite and powerful. His vocabulary is well-used. He knows how to engage the reader, and is very good with turning a phrase.

I enjoyed this book, and I was surprised by the villain-reveal at the end. Five stars all the way.

In Viper, new names appear in the local church’s book of the dead.  Except, none of these people are dead yet. When the names on the list begin to correlate to the fresh homicides in the neighborhood, it’s clear that this is a hitlist.  At the bottom of that list is the former undercover DEA agent Selena De La Cruz. Selena’s passions are guns, shoes, fast cars, and kickboxing, so if someone wants to kill her, it’s going to be a fight they’re going to regret. It was more of a thriller than Bleeder, though it’s set in the same universe — Selena is even dating Reed.

This was a fun, solid ride from start to finish.

My only problem with the book was the unrealistic character of a DEA agent who was not only racist, but whose solution to everything was a SWAT team breaking down the front door (Seriously, how did the guy not get fired? Did he have a relative in the hierarchy? Was he a nephew to the AG?).  Even that only knocks it down to a 4.5 star rating.

Finally, we come to Desjarlais’ third book, Specter.

In our opening prologue, a Cardinal is murdered in an orchestrated hit that looks like the end of a brilliantly executed caper movie … only with an assassination.  The incident is loosely based off of the death of Cardinal Ocampo in 1993, which was presumed to be the worst case of timing and luck on the planet Earth.

But what if it wasn’t?

16 years later, former undercover DEA agent Selena De La Cruz (of Viper) is about to get married to Reed Stubblefield (of Bleeder), and then the Vatican comes by and says “Hi, we think your family was in on the hit, and you were in town at the time.”

DesjarlaisA fun part of this is the dynamic between Reed and Selena.  Bleeder was very much Reed’s book, where Selena first appeared. Viper was all Selena, with a few cameos by Reed.  Specter is their book. Even the alternating points of views (third person personal) are very distinct. Their chemistry is very much a part of the narrative as it is part of their relationship.  She’s very a very tough, outgoing modern woman who has little problem with a shootout, and he’s a quiet, bookish, old-fashioned gentleman who thinks in Aristotle quotes. And I really like these two together, even though we hadn’t seen much of their developing relationship.

Looking at the two of them deal with the trials of dealing with the wedding is more than enough evidence for why these two belong together.And we’re off to the races.

There’s even one entire conversion that sums it up quite nicely.

Him “We’re incompatible. I’m North Side, you’re South Side. I’m Cubs, you’re white Sox …. I’m publicly-employed pro-union Democrat for gun control and you’re small-business owner-Republican with a gun….I drive a Volvo, you drive a Charger.”

Her: “My godmother is very traditional and is having a hard time thinking of me as Selena Perez de La Cruz Stubblefield.”

“You don’t have to adopt my last name…”

See what I mean? They work so well together, I’m surprised more of this wasn’t a romance novel.  I would have read it twice for banter like that.

Okay, the fact that John Desjarlais has a female badass teamed up with the nerd just like I did in The Pius Trilogy really doesn’t have anything to do with my enjoyment of the book. Honest. It just works really well.  It’s like Baldacci’s King and Maxwell series — they just have this great dynamic together. And if you don’t like Baldacci, don’t worry, that’s the only overlap I can think of.

As for the rest … if you’re thinking that this is going to be exactly like Bleeder or Viper, it is and it isn’t. The overall plot feels like an excuse to watch Reed and Selena on screen, which, frankly, I’m happy with. If you read Desjarlais’ books for the intricate puzzle solving (like Bleeder), you’re going to be disappointed. If you’re in this only for a knock-down shootout (like Viper), you’re going to enjoy the second half of the book a lot.

There is also the best look at supernatural phenomenon I’ve seen in years.  Even little conversations like “ever have a seance or use a ouja board? Those things attract all sorts of nasty things.” Awesome.

However, if you want to read this book to follow Reed and Selena, dive right in.  As far as I’m concerned, these two are right up there with Nick and Nora Charles. And, from what I’ve heard, Chesterton Press wants more books in this universe from John Desjarlais, despite that it’s “just” a trilogy.

Frankly, I own all six Nick and Nora Charles movies, so I’m perfectly happy with the idea that we’ll see more of these two.

About Declan Finn

Declan Finn is the author of Honor at Stake, an urban fantasy novel, nominated for Best Horror in the first annual Dragon Awards. He has also written The Pius Trilogy, an attempt to take Dan Brown to the woodshed in his own medium -- soon to be republished by Silver Empire Press. Finn has also written "Codename: Winterborn," an SF espionage thriller, and it's follow-up, "Codename: Winterborn." And "It was Only on Stun!" and "Set To Kill" are murder mysteries at a science fiction convention.
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