by Ken Mercer
Cover Artist: Photo: Llinos Lanini / Trevillion Images
Review by Joseph B. Hoyos
Minotaur Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780312558352
Date: 16 February 2010 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
The small mountain town of Haydenville, California appears idyllic for backpacking, kayaking and swimming. Unfortunately, tourists are being reported missing and/or found dead. Residents of Haydenville, with their bodies covered in scabs and their teeth black with rot, are walking in zombie-like stupors and committing acts of atrocious violence against each other. Will Magowan, a recovering heroin addict, is the new police chief; he's been hired to stop the meth plague sweeping the town. As the body count increases, Will finds himself facing opposition from the residents, the local politicians (including the mayor who hired him) and the Federal government.
Ken Mercer's Slow Fire is a fast-paced, action-packed novel. Slow Fire is a treacherous river, the reader is a kayaker on this river and each chapter, comprising a rock-strewn bend, propels the reader closer to a shocking finale. The setting is beautiful, but horrifying. Haydenville is a small, creepy town surrounded by a large national forest in which tourists have been known to vanish. The redneck, inbred populace has many secrets. In the first chapter, the reader is thrown into the midst of the action; the new police chief, on his first day of work, must investigate the death of a beautiful, young kayaker, Caitlyn Johnson.
Will Magowan is an admirable character who, hopefully, will appear in more novels. His life has not been an easy one. Having suffered a tremendous, personal loss, Will became addicted to heroin. This was easy, considering he worked as an undercover narcotics agent. Also, Will has a tendency to blame himself whenever tragedy strikes. And tragedy strikes many times, thanks to the novel's villain - the person responsible for supplying Haydenville with the meth. Slow Fire has one of most evil, loathsome villains I've ever read. Trust me on this. A meth addict, arrested for assault, decided to chew off his own tongue and bleed to death rather than snitch on his supplier.
Helping Will in his investigation are several characters who are also very likeable. There is the young, naive police officer, Thomas Costello, who has just turned twenty-one. He is sometimes inept and careless and Will must teach him proper police procedures. There is also a Hispanic forest ranger, Mike Lopez, who notifies Will whenever backpackers stumble upon the corpses of missing dogs and humans. Will's wife Laurie, a certified yoga instructor, visits him for the 4th of July holiday. She has filed for a divorce but neither one wants this; after spending time together, they begin falling in love all over again. Unfortunately, Laurie becomes the target of a maniac's revenge. Last, but not least, is Will's faithful dog Buddy. The reader can't help but fear for his safety as well.
Years ago, we once joked about Grandpa having a moonshine still and being chased by them damn revenuers. Now, Grandpa has a meth lab in his cellar. Unfortunately, it's not a laughing matter. The effects of meth on its victims are monstrous. Their faces and bodies are covered with sores and scabs where they've clawed at themselves, imagining insects burrowing beneath their skin. Their teeth become blackened stubs. They don't bathe and their homes turn into cluttered cesspools of filth. The meth takes over their minds, bodies and souls. It becomes their god. Slow Fire is a horrifying, eye opening experience that awakens the reader to a drug problem that is sweeping our nation.
Edmund Burke, a political activist who lived in 18th Century England, once said, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." Well, Will Magowan is one brave man who won't allow evil to triumph. He could've simply resigned as police chief and returned to Los Angeles. However, as a former addict and a grieving parent, Will can sympathize with those who've suffered because of a greedy, monstrous villain who has used meth addiction to control an entire town. Will reminds me of such legendary heroes as ex-Green Beret Billy Jack and Sheriff Buford Pusser.
Slow Fire is highly recommended for those who enjoy excellent crime drama. A debut novel from Ken Mercer, Slow Fire promises to be the first in a series featuring Will Magowan. If you like reading about brave men and women who must combat drug-related crimes, then I also recommend Brad Parks' Faces of the Gone, Wallace Stroby's Gone 'til November and Thomas Kaufman's Drink the Tea. These novels depict men and women who put their lives on the line in the name of justice.