Stroud is back in his territory of true-life heroes and villains (Lizardskin, 1992; Iron Bravo, 1995) in this crackling story of a US marshal. Agents for Marshals Service, the least well known of the law enforcement agencies, are hell-bent on proving that they can walk the walk and talk the talk. In recent years, having been given the job of tracking down dangerous fugitives, they have gotten much more attention. The marshal at the heart of this book, Luke Zitto, carries the gun he took from a homicidal fugitive he helped bring down: It's meant, Stroud suggests, to be his talisman against the bad luck that seems persistently to follow him. There is, for instance, the loss of his wife, Margot, and his stepson: While Luke was working for the Witness Protection Program, Margot took up with one of the witnesses (a white-collar criminal), and she and her son pulled a disappearing act of their own. Loss seems to prevent Zitto from becoming close to anyone. His fellow marshals call him ``the Snake'' because of his cold, solitary nature (it comes in handy, though, when otherwise tough criminals have to be interrogated). Written like a screenplay, with frequent jumpcuts, a number of first-person passages, and too many one-sentence paragraphs, the narrative sometimes trips itself up by striving to be so very tough. But the record of Zitto's pursuit of two insanely violent fugitives--the Yellow Man, who kills with a hatchet, and Paolo Rona, a brutal rapist--is relentless and gripping. The large cast of supporting characters can be confusing, but Stroud keeps the action moving, and the portrait he paints of an aging, lonely lawman, although it's a familiar one, is poignant all the same. Large doses of blood, guns, and creeps, served up with Stroud's characteristic mettle.