Sproul’s debut novel is a categorical hybrid—a hard-boiled noir, thrilling romance, western tragedy.
But a bookstore would shelve it with thrillers. Very bad people do very bad things that will imperil the world if the handful of very good people don’t stop them. The good guys fall prey to the endlessly resourceful bad guys, so they must overcome horrendous obstacles, just as in epic fantasy. The protagonist, Nick Mastro, a cynical attorney with a heart of gold, gets little page-time compared with the secondary characters. He agrees to help the lovely Maria divorce her brutal, corrupt husband, Arthur, who enters into a scheme to dispose of toxic waste in her homeland. He gets reluctant help from Maria’s priest, Father Kirkland, who betrays her while trying to protect her. The story and the characters move from San Francisco to Guatemala, along with cargo of toxic waste, but the thriller trope is upended by minor, rather than major, characters coming to the rescue through their combined efforts, which are invisible to the hero and his supporters. But true to the genre, many innocent people suffer or die, in exquisite detail. The attention paid to each plot development, however, can sometimes rob the book of solid pacing. Still, dark scenes keep tension high as the reader witnesses cruelty, greed and evil that the good guys are helpless to stop. A final copy edit could have fixed grammatical miscues like “lay” for “lie” and “sat” for “set,” along with extraneous telling after something is clearly shown. But the writing redeems itself with some zinger lines, philosophical observations and surprising images: “The bartender’s smile contained only a few teeth, but broke from his face like sunlight through the clapboards of a weathered shack.” Sproul launches the story with a startling twist to a daily ritual, and the crime committed is genius in its simplicity yet terrifying in its possibility.
A unique voice for a genre-bending thriller.