(Reviewed by Daniel Luft JAN 3, 2009)
"Superior caliber did not always mean bigger, fatter bullets. With a .22, you could put all ten rounds into someone without killing them, and usually by round five they would tell you whatever you wanted to know. It was all in the application."
It might be a big surprise to find that the screen writer for Critters 4 and Nightmare on Elm Street 5 – Dream Warriors, could write a skillful, taut thriller. But David J. Schow, who wrote those screenplays along with a several horror novels and short stories, has written an excellent sweaty, claustrophobic, paranoid thriller with his novel Gun Work.
It begins like a snare drum solo as Barney leaves his quiet, unattached life after he gets a surprise phone call from his old friend Carl Ledbetter. Carl’s wife, Erica, has been kidnapped down in Mexico City and Barney, an Iraq combat veteran and certified gun nut sneaks down south to help with the ransom negotiations.
Barney’s very presence with Carl screws the deal with the kidnappers and Barney finds himself captured and dragged into a torture room in a hotel full of hostages. The torture he receives is graphically described and is the only misstep of the book. The horror writer in Schow, who popularized the term splatterpunk, really comes out in the details on these pages. Barney’s torture is sadistic and pointless to the plot – the reader may wonder why Barney’s captors don’t simply shoot him and be done with it.
But Barney’s release, physical recuperation and spiritual rebirth are not pointless. After his torture, Barney is useless as a hired gun; after a recovery that lasts a full year and causes Barney to rely on the kindness of strangers, he is a changed man. He’s by no means a priest after this rebirth but he is now a killer for a cause. His revenge on his abusers and those who double-crossed him only seems to help other people.
Throughout his trials Barney says very little. He is a silent, amoral, noir character descended from Hammet’s Sam Spade or Richard Stark’s Parker. But unlike the books that starred those characters, the third person narrator of Gun Work gets right inside Barney’s head and talks up a storm. The narrator yammers quickly and nervously giving details and background throughout the book. In fact, during the nail-biting first 70 pages, the narrator talks like a drunk in the bar, popping peanuts at the end of each paragraph. This voice, whose exposition borders on digression, makes a wonderful counterbalance to Barney’s cool exterior:
"The weaknesses of guys like Carl permitted guys like Barney to exist and persevere. Barney could fix things. Lots of people can’t fix a leaky faucet. Even more people had no idea how their automobile worked; it’s just a magic box, you get inside and it goes. Barney could strip an engine or put a drop of solder into an iPod and make the magic thing go again."
The book does lose some speed as the narrative opens up to make room for other characters. There is Mano the elderly jeweler who nurses Barney back to health along with the help of a few, enormous Lucha Libre masked wrestlers. Barney’s recuperation continues back in the states as he plans his revenge with his buddies from the gun range where he works. These men have different names but are such slight characters they are impossible to tell apart. This is Barney’s narrative and he thankfully dominates the book. The narrator, remaining in his head, plots Barney’s fall, trip through purgatory and eventual rebirth as a gunman.
Throughout this first crime novel, Schow dabbles in many popular tones and plots of thrillers. The first and best part of the book is the circuitously plotted tale of how Barney gets called down to Mexico by his old friend Carl – one of the few people he trusted a little. So the story begins with echoes of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye as he tried to help Terry Lennox only to find that he has been suckered. Barney’s imprisonment, near murder, and escape are scenes from deep inside Steve McQueen territory. The revenge part of how Barney goes after the people who have wronged him with a raid on the hostage hotel is enormous and bloody and reads like a story filmed by John Woo back in his Hong Kong days. The action here is over the top, out of control and a hell of a lot of fun. The book ends with more echoes of Richard Stark as the last few surviving characters learn who has been in control of this plot since the beginning of the story.
Gun Work doesn’t reinvent the wheel but it really grips the road at high speed. Let’s hope David J. Schow makes thriller writing a permanent part of his resume.
- Amazon readers rating: from 5 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Gun Work at Hard Case Crime
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Pamela's Get (1987) Kindle Edition
- The Kill Riff (1988)
- The Shaft (1990)
- Rock Breaks Scissors Cut (2003)
- Bullets of Rain (2003)
- Gun Work (October 2008)
- Seeing Red (1990)
- Lost Angels (1990)
- Black Leather Required (1994)
- Crypt's Orchids (1998)
- Eye (2001)
- Zombie Jam (2004)
- Havoc Swims Jaded (October 2006)
- Wild Hairs (2001)
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- Official website for David J. Schow
- Wikipedia page for David J. Schow
- IMDB bio on David J. Schow
- Tabula Rose interview with David J. Schow
- Pink Ray Gun interview with David J. Schow
- DarkEcho interview with David J. Schow
- Pop Syndicate interview with David J. Schow
- Babbage Press review of The Shaft
- Trashotron review of Bullets of Rain
- Pop Culture Magazine review for Gun Work
- Somebody Dies review of Gun Work
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About the Author:
David J. Schow was born in 1965 in Marburg, Germany and was adopted by American parents then living in Middlesex, England.
He writes horror novels, short stories and screenplays. His credits include films such as The Crow and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. Most of Schow's work falls into the sub-genre splatterpunk, a term he is sometimes credited with coining. In the 1990's, Schow wrote a regular column for Fangoria magazine.
He lives in the Hollywood Hills in a fabulous house called Ravenseye, which was built in 1926 and formerly occupied by Linda Rondstat.