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Book Reviews: September 2021

A View from the Bridge

Hairpin Bridge
Taylor Adams
Hardcover / Paperback / Ebook
ISBN: 978-0063065444
William Morrow, June 15, 2021, 320 pages

One Taylor Adams has staked out a territory for himself: the woman-in-jeopardy thriller.

He is very good at it.

A couple of years ago, he published a suspense novel, No Exit, about a woman trapped by a blizzard at a rest stop in the mountains, who spots an abducted child in a cage in the back of another motorist’s van and, with no way to contact authorities, finds herself wondering which of the other motorists parked there is a killer. It was propulsive, inventive, and non-stop thrilling, excellent at the trick of introducing a fresh complication every few pages.

I read his subsequent novel, Hairpin Bridge, which is even more deceptively simple in its conception.

About all it has in common with the first is the now-tiresome necessity of taking the cell phones out of commission. We are, I guess, stuck with this, forever.

I compare Hairpin Bridge to a thriller I still count as one of the all-time best I’ve ever read, even though the author has his rancid aspects elsewhere: Intensity by Dean Koontz. That one contrived to be about one isolated woman against one serial killer, with all other human beings either absent or irrelevant. I have no problem telling you that it is magnificent, even though the author was elsewhere a guy whose excesses had to be tolerated, or not. I mean it when I call it magnificent. Hairpin Bridge reminds me of that one because the math is initially similar: one (1) resourceful woman against one (1) murderer. (I say “initially” because you the reader find out early on that said killer might have a confederate. I will not provide firm data on whether he does or if any others ever show up. This is the opening situation, one woman and one killer.)

A Vietnamese-American woman named Lena Nguyen has lost her mentally ill twin sister, apparently to a suicide leap off the titular structure. She suspects that Raymond Raycevic, the highway patrolman who encountered her sister less than an hour before the estimated time of death, knows more than he’s telling. For various reasons, some self-serving—she was estranged from the identical twin in question—She contrives to meet up with him, on that bridge, for what she sells as an exercise in closure, a conversation about what happened that day. All is businesslike, at the onset. But Lena intends a more hostile conversation.

It is, of course, crazy to meet up with a suspected killer on an isolated bridge (on a closed road, yet), for a conversation that will segue to accusations of murder, especially when he’s a bodybuilding cop and twice her size, but she’s after the truth and she is not unprepared.

Their confrontation lasts about three hours. It rapidly progresses from the stilted and well-meaning, to irritation as Lena pokes holes in Raycevic’s story, to profane argument, to violent confrontation, with Lena’s own life in immediate peril—as she of course knew it would be. Her own behavior cannot be interpreted as anything but insanely reckless, almost suicidal. But the narrative of that three hours, interspersed with blog entries about her relationship with her troubled sister and the plans she has made for her confrontation with Raycevic, is intense and unrelenting, as the power balance between the two keeps swinging, at times wildly, from one extreme to the next. There are, in those three hours on the flat expanse of the bridge, exchanges of gunfire, bursts of vehicular mayhem, and episodes of outrageous gaslighting, as Raycevic tries to persuade Lena that what she’s doing is crazy, a premise that it is not entirely unrealistic. The book is still mostly that conversation, and the internal thought processes of both characters.

And I haven’t even mentioned yet that the bridge is threatened by a forest fire. Yup, that’s on the horizon, and headed this way. Adams treats any threat to the tension level like a personal affront that must be assaulted with extreme prejudice, a habit that sometimes renders the story exhausting. But damn, if it isn’t fun to see Lena Nguyen take on this crazy challenge.

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And now, covered in brief, two other works that crossed your friendly columnists’ line of sight this review period:

Big Dark Hole: Stories (Small Beer Press, July 2021) is the latest collection of short stories by that writer of sometimes exceedingly strange fiction, Jeffrey Ford. Among the works to be found within are “The Thousand Eyes,” about a man who follows signs to a hidden show by a folk singer who is intimate with death; “Hibbler’s Minions,” a dust bowl legend about a circus that is devoured from within by the performers of a flea circus; “The Match,” about a college professor who is informed by the college administration that to keep his job he will have to wrestle an angel; and “Sisyphus in Elysium,” about the titular personality, who is here provided a break from endlessly pushing that stone uphill. Ford’s stories are often wry even when they’re horror-adjacent, and he has a knack for tossing in additional premises, that render his bizarre narratives even stranger.

Nothing But Blackened Teeth (Nightfire, October 2021) by Cassandra Khaw is a lush haunted house story, about various friends—with a bitter backstory that has, for some, resulted in estrangement—gathering for a celebration in a Japanese mansion, on the eve of a wedding. The mansion was built on the bones of a murdered bride and has a haunted reputation, which is of course intended by the rich guy responsible for throwing the party as part of the fun. What follows is not “fun.” The supernatural mayhem does eventually arrive, but this reader found his greatest pleasure in Khaw’s portrayal of a gathering of friends who have grown so apart that it would probably have been healthiest for them to stay away from each other, whether the gathering between them was in a demon-haunted house or an inflatable bouncy castle. Even before the supernatural manifests, this is intensely bitchy.

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This column should go online simultaneously with my first post-quarantine convention appearance, as Author Guest of Honor at Fencon XVII, September 17-19 at the Sheraton DFW airport in Irving, Texas. I hope to see some of you there!

Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro made his first non-fiction sale to Spy magazine in 1987. His twenty-six books to date include four Spider-Man novels, three novels about his profoundly damaged far-future murder investigator Andrea Cort, and six middle-grade novels about the dimension-spanning adventures of young Gustav Gloom. Adam’s darker short fiction for grownups is highlighted by his most recent collection, Her Husband’s Hands And Other Stories. Adam’s works have won the Philip K. Dick Award and the Seiun (Japan), and have been nominated for eight Nebulas, three Stokers, two Hugos, and, internationally, the Ignotus (Spain), the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire (France), and the Kurd-Laßwitz Preis (Germany). His latest release was the audio collection, And Other Stories (Skyboat Media), which features thirteen hours of his fiction, including the new stories “The Hour In Between” and “Big Stupe and the Buried Big Glowing Booger.” Adam lives in Florida with a trio of revolutionary cats.