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Though literally about crime, and subtitled ""A Novel of Crime,"" this debut by a former insurance adjuster now teaching at Moorhead State hints perfectly at melodrama in its terse, elegant paragraphs. It is, in fact, the soul-satisfying novel that many talented thriller writers ought to aim for rather than trying to mimic the inimitable (e.g., Thomas Harris) and then turning witless in the production of psycho-imperiled heroine banalities. At each dark turn, when clichÆ’s might clash like boxes of falling type, Early deftly avoids formulaic devices and goes straight for character. Jake Warner, an insurance adjuster with a passion for restoring old cars, finds himself mired in a deep double-depression caused by the Vietnam death of his friend Mark and by the near-chronic tendency of the insurance industry to shaft the client/victim regardless of Jake's good intentions. His ten years as a South Dakota adjuster have rendered him almost speechless with dismay, despite the loving attentions of his wife Jane: ""He would lie or sit next to her and his voice would touch her as it always had, but the next day he would turn mute."" Then Jane herself dies in a car accident that's seemingly her fault. Pure gloom buries Jake. Rather than pursue Jane's liability, he quits his company, moves 250 miles away, and gets a job in a body shop, repairing metal as tenderly as if it were flesh. In a fit of poetic justice, he falls for Luella, whose leg contains a metal plate that holds the bones together. Ten years later, a visit from a cop reveals that Jane, in fact, was not at fault in her accident and that a crooked claims adjuster had engineered a false claim by which he profited from her catastrophe. Learning this, Jake and his friend Luella scheme to entrap the adjuster, an extra-unlikable villain with little moral complexity, but that's okay--he never sheds blood. A compelling debut, with James M. Cain, father of insurance novels, smiling over it.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1998
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Carroll & Graf