A Blood Thing
by James Hankins
Thomas & Mercer, 2018
Veteran thriller-writer James Hankins has a knack for taking the most staid, even derivative plots of the genre and infusing them with an energy and readability that time and again saves his books from feeling like they were written by a computer program. This is certainly true for his latest from Thomas & Mercer (the thriller-lit arm of Amazon publishing), A Blood Thing, which turns on that reliable old chestnut, the blackmail scheme.
Andrew Kane, a charismatic new governor of Vermont who came to office in large part by promising his constituents a change from the dirty politics of his predecessor, is shaking hands in the aftermath of a routine ribbon-cutting ceremony when a man in the crowd slips an ordinary-looking little flip-phone into the palm of his hand, steps close, and says, “Keep that phone with you at all times, Governor. You're going to need it after the arrest.”
The man then slips back into the crowd before Andrew Kane can get a good look at him. He slips the phone into his pocket and quickly forgets about it as he goes about his busy schedule. But shortly afterwards, his developmentally impaired brother Tyler is arrested by the police, who have evidence implicating him in the recent murder of a young woman.
Governor Kane automatically remembers the phone, and his brother Henry, a lieutenant in the Vermont State Police and the one-man staff of its Internal Affairs Unit, is by his side when the mystery phone rings right on schedule. A digitally-disguised voice tells the governor that Tyler's fate depends entirely on the governor issuing a full pardon for a man named Gabriel Torrance. The caller can either exonerate Tyler or further implicate him, and all for one very simple reason: the caller himself killed that young woman and meticulously framed the governor's brother.
As stated: a classic blackmail scenario – this one initially complicated by two things: the governor's bedrock refusal to engage in the kind of dirty personal politics that characterized his predecessor, and Henry's persona non grata status among Vermont's cops, many of whom consider him a traitor to the closed ranks of the police. Both brothers come out of that first enigmatic phone call shaken but confident in their own separate ways; the governor is steadfast in his ethical convictions, and his brother is quietly certain that he can learn the identity of the mystery caller without involving any of the tech-experts on the police staff (a strict condition of the caller). But the situation grows steadily worse for poor Tyler in short order, and the mystery caller's terms and demand keep changing and amplifying.
Hankins is an old hand at writing this kind of thing, and he gives his characters just the kind of quotidian texture to make them believable (including the tantalizing glimpses he gives of the killer, fastidiously updating his checklists about his elaborate scheme). This sure touch falters only slightly in the case of Tyler himself, whose mental state is handled with an odd, distracting hyper-delicacy, to the point where his own family members are usually only will to say he's “not like other guys” or “a special guy” – euphemisms that families dealing with such conditions absolutely never use. You're reading for dozens of pages before any character is even tangentially clear about why it's extra-tragic that Tyler, of all people, would be framed for murder.
But this is a minor oddity in an otherwise superbly confident novel of suspense, one with an enjoyably tricky final act. And if Hankins has done his job, readers finishing the book will jump the next time their phone rings.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com