Much has been made in recent months of Auckland writer Ben Sanders' fourth novel - a crime thriller set entirely in the US - which could be the start of a successful series. I must admit that it is good to hear about someone local trying to crack the big time and doing well, but the fact is that the nationality of the writer is irrelevant. What matters is whether the story, characters and setting feels authentic. Is it the prose of someone who seems to know what they are talking about (in this case, American drug gangs and New Mexico police procedural matters) or does it fall flat and feel phoney?
While not pretending to be any kind of expert myself in those areas, I would say American Blood feels very true to life and I totally bought the world he created. Sanders has written a very good crime thriller, whose flaws lie not in the inaccuracy of the detail - but perhaps in the sheer amount of it.
He removed his suit jacket and folded it and laid it in the load space and tugged his shirt from his belt to hide his star. Then he arched sideways and slipped the Glock .40 off his hip and took his backup SIG from the small of his back and put the pistols in the gun bag with the 12 gauge.
A passage like the one above is very representative of Sanders' prose style. There is a huge amount of information of what each character is doing and how they are doing it and where they are standing when it happens. Well, perhaps it is not that bad, but I do feel like there is an element of fussiness in his writing that needs to be edited out a little further - even though this novel has been edited very well and its pacing is excellent.
Our hero, Marshall, lives under the security blanket of the witness protection scheme in Sante Fe, New Mexico. His days of violence are seemingly behind him, until he forces his way into a local missing persons case to see if he can help find a young girl. That's really the only detail you need to know of plot, apart from stating that his search ties into a group of vicious local drug dealers and East Coast gangsters from his past.
Crime thriller fans who enjoy reading about the darkly troubled detectives popular in Scandinavian fiction will be somewhat disappointed with Marshall. He starts off as a blank page and not a lot of detail gets filled in by the end of the story. He is described as tall, athletic, blonde, handsome and little else. Neither does he give much of himself away when talking with the other characters. Typical conversations with him seem to be filled with long pauses and short sentences.
To be honest, I didn't find Marshall to be a hero that I immediately cared a great deal about. Thankfully, Sanders does not let the book rest solely on his shoulders. While a great deal of American Blood is written from his point of view, other chapters are written from the perspective of other characters, for example; a couple of the main bad guys, an local Sante Fe cop, and a tough US Marshall who monitors the local witness protection concerns.
Spreading the narrative around in a book can be a bit of a risk. The reader can get confused as to who is who and it is easy to lose tension when you jump from person to person, all of whom have different objectives and concerns. However, due to the blandness of Marshall and relative simplicity of the main story and the skill of Sanders as a writer, it works just fine. In fact, I think it helps the book immensely to learn a little bit about everyone, as opposed to a lot about just one.
I found another of Sanders' talents to be his character dialogue - which is excellent. This counts for a lot in such a dialogue-heavy novel.
"You'll end up regretting this."
Marshall sighed down the barrel. Rojas' chest neatly centred. "Well. You just keep that hand hidden and we'll see where the balance of regret ends up."
There are a lot of such wry exchanges and it seems obvious to me that Sanders is a fan of such writers as Elmore Leonard and George Pelecanos - and if you enjoy those two writers as well, will find a lot to like in American Blood.
I found the motivation of the main character to be a little sketchy - but I bought it. Marshall is a man who has done some wrong in the past and seems to be trying to make up for it. That may sound weak when so much blood is ending up on the floor and the stakes are so high - but I like the fact that Sanders isn't trying to construct overly elaborate reasonings for our hero to get into action.
The success of this novel will more than likely lead to a second part - which is just fine by me. Aside from wanting a little more detail on the main character - and a little less detail on who is carry what type of gun and the colour of the belt it is tucked into, I think Sanders is definitely a writer to watch our for.
American Blood is published in NZ by Allen & Unwin ($32.99)
Illustration by P.K. Stowers