Book review Redemption Road by John Hart
By John Hart
New York: St. Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne Books, 2016. $27.99After a five-year absence, John Hart is back at it, returning to his North Carolina roots and once again mixing crime fiction with just a hint of the Southern Gothic in this tale of long-buried secrets and the search for redemption—and questioning whether it’s even worth it if we find it. The multipronged story revolves around a host of characters but Hart’s most intriguing creation—and his first female protagonist to date—is Detective Elizabeth Black, who’s grappling with the aftermath of a brutal shooting where she killed two men who were holding eighteen-year-old Channing Shore hostage while they took turns raping her. Any police shooting is worthy of investigation but Elizabeth didn’t just shoot the men, who happened to be black (she’s white), once or twice: she emptied her entire clip, shooting the pair a total of eighteen times. The public and her own department aren’t sure whether she’s a killer or a savior, especially since she refuses to speak directly about the incident other than to give the bare minimum of details, while Channing remains silent. Excessive force charges loom large but Elizabeth, who’s always been a tough nut to crack even before the incident , isolates herself even further from fellow cops, including her partner, Detective Charlie Beckett.
When word comes through that ex-cop Adrian Wall is being released from prison after a thirteen-year stint for a murder he claims he didn’t commit, Elizabeth’s world continues to spin dangerously out of control. One of the few members of the police force who believed Adrian didn’t kill Julia Strange all those years ago, despite heaps of forensic evidence, Elizabeth also shares a unique bond with Julia’s son, the now adolescent Gideon Strange. As the young officer who discovered Julia’s body, Elizabeth found herself forever tethered to the dead woman’s son, then only a year old, and stayed in touch, helping raise him from afar as his own father fell into a state of drunken disrepair. Gideon is hell-bent on revenge and sees Adrian as his prime target. A violent confrontation on the day Adrian—who suffered mightily in prison, even more than the typical cop does behind bars—sends Gideon to the hospital casts the newly paroled ex-detective in an even more negative light. When a young woman’s body is found in the exact place where Julia’s was discovered years earlier, suspicion immediately falls on Adrian, though Hart includes italicized passages narrated by a mysterious first-person voice that lead the reader to believe that the killer is someone else completely, someone who’s lurking on the sidelines, watching the cops’ every move.
The troubled relationships among the characters, as thorny as anyone would encounter in real life, provide the real backbone of the novel, putting aside the fact that Hart spins an intricately plotted crime story with plenty of twists and sharp turns. Elizabeth’s surrogate-mother status with Gideon, as well as with Channing, is in direct contradiction to her own strained relationship with her father, an evangelical preacher whose actions when Elizabeth was a teenager and in need of help not only tainted their adult interactions but colored his daughter’s ability to trust, and arguably function, later in her life. The larger themes Hart plays with—police corruption, prison abuse—work because they’re filtered through the lens of believably flawed individuals, a brand of empathetic literary hero (and now heroine) at which Hart excels.
While it’s thrilling to discover who’s behind the new series of murders that mimic the killing of Julia Strange and to see whether the truth of what really happened to Elizabeth and Channing in that basement will come out, what’s truly satisfying is to see the characters discover their own truths—authentically, painfully, and at their own pace, the way it happens in real life. Readers can only hope it won’t be another five years until we see more from John Hart.