Top positive review
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A great debut thriller...
on 18 April 2014
Always keen to highlight debut authors, John Stonehouse has proved to be a real find with his first book, An American Outlaw. This is a blistering slice of modern Americana that is hugely reminiscent in the spare, sparse style of authors like Cormac McCarthy, Ace Atkins and Denis Johnson, and hooks the reader throughout with its depiction of a fast-moving and tension filled manhunt across Texas.
The action focuses on Gilman James (a distant relation of outlaw Jesse James) and his two cohorts, having successfully completed one heist, and on the verge of a second in the far southwest of Texas. However, due to an unfortunate power outage, and the gung-ho actions of the other members of his team, their second job leads to death and injury and sees Gil and his injured friend on the receiving end of a desperate manhunt in the company of Tennille Labrea, a woman harbouring a secret and with an agenda all of her own. Stonehouse splits the action effectively between the trio’s flight from justice, and the actions of those who pursue them, headed by John Whicher from the US Marshals Office- a dogged and uncompromising ex-soldier who always aims gets his man.
With the ex-military background of James, his cohorts, and the marvellous and dogged Whicher, Stonehouse plays heavily on the themes of friendship, loyalty and the bonds and experiences illicited by the involvement in military conflict, and this is a real strength of the book. There is an interesting play on the way that the moral duty afforded to those who serve their country can be quickly unravelled in their return to society, as evinced by James and his friends’ actions. Stonehouse reveals a step at a time the connection between the main male characters through their military service across both Gulf Wars, highlighting key events across their tours of duty, and how these incidents have shaped and defined their connections to one another. The characters of Whicher and James, in particular, are incredibly well- defined, and lead to a shifting of loyalties in the reader’s conscience along the way, as neither man is wholly good or bad, making them both vital to the central plot and the holding of the reader’s interest. The pace is relentless and tense, and supported by this excellent characterisation, truly keeps those pages turning. Although I was initially less sure about the introduction of the female charater, Tennille, a young Hispanic woman joining up with the fugitives, my fears were quickly assuaged, as her story was integrated well into the main plot, thus undoing my feeling of her being a token female character to make up the numbers.
The atmosphere and location of the action is brilliantly rendered, with clipped and precise descriptions of the dusty environs of the Texas landscape and its haunting but desolate beauty. You can almost hear the twanging strains of a lone guitar, as the fugitives track across this endless wasteland of run down gas stations, diners and the miles and miles of deserted and hostile Texan terrain. It is incredibly visual, and also ramps up the tension tenfold, as the fugitives’ desperation increases in the sights of their dogged pursuer. Aided by the authentic and spare dialogue which captures the linguistic rhythms of Gilman’s southern roots and the Texan drawl of others, and the superb characterisation of the central characters, I would thoroughly recommend this. A good read.