Update: Straw Man was the winner of the 2017 Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction!
Islandport Books has released book #11 in the Jack McMorrow Mystery series by Maine author Gerry Boyle. I previously reviewed #10 Once Burned and said that the hard-boiled detective created by Dashiell Hammett is alive and well and living in rural Maine, working as a freelance writer/reporter. This time Jack is up against gun runners, gangs and Old Order Mennonites in his quest for stories.
Jack McMorrow, A Trouble-Magnet
Jack seems to have no trouble finding trouble, or it finding him. Chapter One starts out innocently enough: Jack and his two friends Clair and Louis are cutting trees on a friend’s private property when they hear some cutting going on nearby, on the same property. Tree poachers! Attempts at a friendly resolution fail and a fight ensues: Jack, Clair and Louis against four others. Clair is ex-Marine and Louis is ex-army, so any tactics used against them are practically useless and the four come out of the fight bruised, bloodied and broken. They depart, vowing revenge. However, these four are not only poaching trees. They are involved in buying guns off private sellers in Maine and funneling them to a street gang in Boston. Mixed up in this is a Mennonite youth named Abram who is questioning not only his strict upbringing and lifestyle, but his faith as well. The Maine guys have befriended him and are using his clean-cut innocence as a front to purchase the guns. So the two separate stories Jack is pursuing, Old Order Mennonites in Maine and private gun sales in Maine are combined, while Jack tries to protect himself, his wife Roxanne and their child Sophie from the wrath of these people, causing more stress in an already shaky marriage.
None of these story lines are simple or clear-cut. They involve feelings of distrust, religious views, gun control laws and vigilantism. When being questioned by two federal agents from the ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, who are chasing down the gun suppliers too), as to why Jack, Clair and Louis went to such lengths to protect a Mennonite youth, Jack says:
It’s not the kid, it’s the principle.”
“People don’t do stuff like this out of principle” the agent responds.
“I do,” I said. “And my friends do, too.”
And I looked at him, held his gaze.
“True fact,” I said.
You get the idea of what type of people Jack and his friends are: law-abiding, but when the law fails, or cannot be present, they have no issue with protecting themselves or loved ones with whatever it takes. Lessons taught in the Vietnam War (for Clair) and the Iraqi War (for Louis) are not easily forgotten, and even in peaceful Waldo County Maine, strategic field tactics come in handy.
Straw Man was a little more coarse that Once Burned; there was more R-rated language (primarily from the Maine redneck foursome and the Boston gang member they interrogate) and one scene of a sexual assault that was unsettling. Aside from that, the storytelling is superb, the pacing taut and the emotions elicited by events very real. Several times found myself reacting along with Jack as these outlaws threatened his family’s peaceful life and that of his friends. The right to arms and to protect oneself is deeply entrenched in the American psyche, and in the light of recent shootings in the U.S. Straw Man gives one some food for thought in that area.