Friday, November 30, 2012

Steve Liskow, CHERRY BOMB: Detection and Danger in Urban Connecticut

Steve Liskow's 2012 thriller CHERRY BOMB gave me some uneasy moments in a nice little motel in Virginia in October, as I devoured the book, unable to leave it behind in my room. Thanks to its provocative cover -- suggesting sex with teenaged girls (or younger) -- I kept hiding the book against my sweater or under my newspaper. And as I read, I leaned forward over the pages, not wanting to suggest what this "Yankee grandmother" found so compelling in its pages.

Private investigator Zach Barnes is understandable skeptical when an insurance-company CEO with a broken marriage shows up in his office, insisting his daughter's missing. Michael Kendall might drive any daughter into running to the other parent -- domineering, unfriendly, even callous. His idea of asking for help for his daughter Stacy sounds more like a command to clean the yard: "She's disappeared. I want her back."

When Barnes finds out the 15-year-old has been missing for three days and her boarding school has ignored her absence, he has even more reason to dread what he'll find. Neither of her separated parents has tuned in on this girl; even her roommate at school isn't close to her. And three days ... if she's been abducted, three days means there's little hope of finding her alive. And all the signs do indeed point to abduction, including the girl's unused cellphone and abandoned life.

Despite his reluctance, Barnes has a personal reason to take the case: Stacy Kimball looks like Barnes's dead wife, enough so to be scary. That's a loss he's nowhere near over. He's got to take the case, even knowing it will burn and damage him.

Liskow brings to uncomfortable but very real life the scummy district on the edge of every urban region where the "pussy palaces" stand and twisted adult men go looking for cruel satisfactions from women trapped in terror and pain. This district really exists near Hartford, Connecticut, but it's recognizable in other places, too (I'm thinking New Jersey near the Lincoln Tunnel, for instance, and just outside Camden and Philadelphia.) The near-porn cover turns out to tag the situation that Stacy, if she's still alive, has fallen into.

But the truly creepy part of this well-spun thriller is: Why Stacy? It turns out there's a reason, and it's far from accidental.

Liskow is turning out more thrillers rapidly, having reached a "sweet spot" in his writing, and Run Straight Down is already on hand as a second 2012 offering. Before you go to that one, snag a copy of CHERRY BOMB. This writer keeps getting better, and it's a shame that his books are being self-published -- some savvy mainstream publisher should already have snagged him. Maybe one of them soon will.

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