Review of “Start Shooting” by Charlie Newton
Any work of art can be judged in two ways. You can assess it according a larger set of values – applying an exterior frame of reference, as it were. Or the work can be evaluated on the merits – does it fulfill its own premise?
When we look at thrillers – especially noir-cop-thrillers like Charlie Newton’s “Start Shooting” – the second method has to sit on the judge’s bench.
That’s due to the fact that the dynamic of a thriller is essentially internal. A thriller may have some things to say about the world as it is, but it mainly has things to say about itself. That’s how a writer keeps his reader aboard the equivalent of Mister Toad’s Wild Ride
A thriller requires a writer to keep raising the stakes, to keep shoving the accelerator down on the engine of narrative. The author does not do his (or her) job well unless the tachometers stay red-lined, then get pushed ever higher, until it sounds like narrative progress cannot possibly be maintained, since all the pistons are about to blow out through the hood.
The story’s protagonist always must face a growing threat. So the level of dangerous elements, bad characters, murderous impulses, deadly surprises, stinging betrayals, shocking revelations, astonishing plot twists and the ilk constantly must be heightened. And the more exciting a story grows, the less like quotidian life it becomes. Thus, maintaining consistency within the story becomes paramount. An intrigued reader will allow the narrative to part him from the recognizable earth and bear him off like a hot air balloon, but only if the design and operation of the vehicle that carries him are self-reinforcing.
In other words, if the author sets it up that the balloon burners (or narrative engines) are running on fermented rat piss, then the supply of rat piss has to be a consideration. If the pilot is a hair-fetishist ax-murderer with mommy issues, then the lady passenger who’s got her locks tucked under a hat needs to have a slight advantage over the lady passenger who doesn’t. The interior dynamics of the book will determine whether the suspension of belief can be sustained; not the reader’s evaluation of whether or not the events described could ever happen in the “real” world.
Which brings us to “Start Shooting.” The genius of this thriller is how well it succeeds – or even exceeds – at its task. It opens with a prologue, in which one first-person narrator (there are two) says, “Nineteen years I’ve been a ghetto cop and thought I’d worked every heartbreaking, horror combination possible. But I hadn’t.” The speaker is Bobby Vargas, a Latino lover of his tough Four Points neighborhood in Chicago, whose refuge from the stress of police work is strumming blues guitar in dive bars. His older brother Ruben is a homicide detective with a dangerously slick skill-set and a sociopathic sang-froid.
Bobby might be a lover, but the love of his life is apparently a dead girl, Colleen Brennan, an Irish kid with whom this “Rican” had a forbidden teen romance. But she was raped and killed. And the first threat to the adult Bobby comes when a muck-raking Chicago Herald reporter launches a series which looks to indict Ruben and Bobby himself for the crime. The second hit follows rapidly on the first: a supposed ex-FBI, ex-DEA agent, a short, blond stick-of-dynamite named Tania Hahn, parachutes onto the force to facilitate drug busts of the main Four Points gang, the Latin Kings.
Instead, she precipitates untoward violence, and ropes Bobby into a series of frame-ups – including a child-molestation charge – in order to coerce him into assisting with her real agenda: investigating a looming bio-weapon terror attack that will use a plague agent developed by the Japanese in WWII. Tania can get away with all manner of illicit manipulation, see, because she’s an off-the-books contract player hired by the CIA.
If your head has begun to spin like a Tibetan prayer wheel, good, get ready, because as you read on those cranial rpm’s will only increase.
Colleen Brennan’s twin sister Arleen has just come back home to Chicago. She’s a gorgeous waitress-actress with more than one dark secret, who’s returned to grasp at the straw of a possible role as Blanche Du Bois playing opposite Jude Law in a “Streetcar” to be staged at the Chicago-Shubert Theater. Big problem with her plan is that Ruben has Arleen in his grip, and uses her as a pawn and go-fer in arranging a way to profit from the terror attack. Got it? Then add another complication: Arleen is the book’s other first-person narrator; and it just may be possible, as a teen, that she was playing twin-games with Bobby’s head, and she herself was his real first true love.
I tell you all this to reveal what a crafty and complex set of throttle pushes Newton provides on the threat levels in his thriller. Can’t reveal much more without turning my teasers into spoilers, which I don’t want to do, because I wish for you to read the book and enjoy its roller-coaster ride as much as I did. As wild as it gets, the story never quite leaves the rails, because a) it’s internally consistent, i.e. it adheres to its own premises and b) because the prose is so saturated, knowing and gorgeous that it provides a narrative propellant of its own.
There are thrillers more hyperbolic than this one, but they tend to shake you out of the cart before you reach the destination. In “Start Shooting,” the hand on the controls stays masterful.