Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
It can't be easy to write a thriller these days. The market is literally awash with action packed paperbacks with punchy three word titles like “The Crimson Mandate” or “The Octagon Vendetta”. The formula for thrillers is now so well-established that it's verging on self-parody. Misanthropic / amnesiac / alcoholic ex-cop / soldier / hitman / academic is recruited / coerced / blackmailed by enigmatic / shady businessman / mentor / former-employer to solve a murder / rescue a hostage / capture a terrorist / recover an artifact of unimaginable power.
Our hero is normally given a monosyllabic first name and a surname that drops some none-too-subtle hints about his personality and occupation e.g. Carl Hunter or Jack Grimwind. Chances are, during the course of his adventure he'll be double-crossed, uncover a huge government conspiracy and knock socks with a female character whose tenuous link to the plot is as loose as her knicker elastic. The bad-guys get killed, the hero barely escapes with his life and the stage is set for his return in “The Velvet Calamity”.
You know the books I mean. The supermarkets sell them at knock-down prices and the shelves of charity shops groan beneath their collective weight. Chances are, you've read more than one of them but would be hard-pressed to recall any of the finer plot details. They are the literary equivalent of a hamburger. You know what you're getting when you buy it. Even though it's not of particularly high quality, it manages to be strangely enjoyable while it lasts and instantly forgettable once you've finished with it.
It might seem like I'm being unduly harsh towards these books – I'm not trying to run them down. I have nothing but respect for the authors who tackle the clichéd and formulaic genre head on. Who cares if the old “nuke in Washington DC” story has been told a dozen times before? If the story works and the readers enjoy themselves, it's mission accomplished as far as I'm concerned. Have you ever looked at a cheeseburger and thought “I'm not going to eat that because I've had one before and I know what it tastes like?” Of course not!
Having said all that, it is very exciting to come across a thriller that dares to be a little bit different.
At first glance, “Ferris' Bluff” by Fred Limberg bears many of the hallmarks of a by-the-numbers thriller. The protagonist, Andy “Ace” Evans is a drifter with a past. He's so scarred by it, both physically and emotionally, that he doesn't allow people to get close to him. Being an ex-Navy SEAL also means that he's totally badass. Though Ace tries to keep a lid on it, his past has a habit of catching up with him. One aspect of his past that he's particularly concerned about is a group of Russian gangsters who killed his family and came close to killing him.
So far, so familiar...
Where “Ferris' Bluff” differs from other thrillers is that it grounds what has the potential to be a balls-to-the-wall high-octane blockbuster by setting it in a totally believable small town. This isn't a typical fish-out-of-water scenario where our muscle-bound hero trashes the local community as he clumsily tries to adjust to civilian life. Far from it. Ace is not a cardboard cut-out action man, he's a regular guy who likes tinkering with cars and swigging beers with the boys. As far as he's concerned, his fighting days are over. Indeed, his desire to settle down and lead a regular, normal existence is one of his most endearing qualities. Sure, other thrillers have characters who we are told want to leave their past behind them, but Limberg takes a great deal of care to show his readers this.
Much like the titular small town, the novel moves at an unhurried, almost sedate pace. A lot of time is spent establishing the characters and developing their relationships so that when the action is introduced into the story, we actually give a damn about those involved. Without wanting to give too much of the plot away, the novel centres around Ace's friendship with an old man by the name of Granville Tubbs. Ace is only in town to pay his old friend a visit but when he discovers that Tubbs is seriously ill and holed up in the Shady Oaks nursing home, he decides to stick around and see if he can help in some way. An encounter with a particularly slimy lawyer (always a great villain) leads Ace to suspect that vultures are beginning to circle before his friend has even passed on. His involvement with a beautiful widow gets the townsfolks' tongues wagging and before too long, Ace is up to his neck in intrigue. All the while, the Russian gangsters are drawing closer, endangering the lives of everyone he has grown to care about.
Characterisation in the novel is plentiful. Limberg has obviously invested a great deal of energy in recreating the laid back lifestyle found in small town America. Sure, there's a few beer-swillin', tobacco-chewin' good ol' boys, but the majority of the inhabitants of Ferris' Bluff are so well realised that they never feel contrived or one-dimensional.
The novel's relatively gentle pace might stretch the patience of readers more accustomed to the boom-bang-bang thrills of Andy McNab or Clive Cussler, but those who stick with it will find themselves rewarded with some fantastic scenes of action. As an ex-Navy SEAL, Ace's approach to combat is swift and unflinchingly brutal. Limberg's prose when describing fist-fights or gun battles is similarly uncomplicated, direct and effective.
“Ferris' Bluff” is an accomplished, highly enjoyable thriller that places more emphasis on believable characterisation than on fancy gadgets and things blowing up. With an immensely likeable cast of characters and an entertaining plot, Limberg's novel shows us that thrillers don't have to stick rigidly to the formula to be successful.
Read the Booksquawk author interview here.
Read the Booksquawk author interview here.
Hereward L.M. Proops