Over the course of his brief career Huston has very quickly become one of the top crime fiction writers. One of the things that is the most impressive about Huston’s career so far is that he appears to be getting stronger with every new book.
You can also read an interview with Charlie Huston.
In The Shotgun Rule, his first stand alone thriller, Huston pulls out all the stops. He uses every trick in his arsenal to full effect, while introducing some new ones as well. In A Dangerous Man Huston played with the dramatic tension in key scenes and the effect it had on the reader. By giving the conclusion to a scene in or near the beginning he doesn’t allow us an effective way to release the tension that has built up; so we are left to carry it over to the next scene. Huston not only employs this technique in The Shotgun Rule but develops it further.
From the very beginning the book intersperses chapters of the kids casing a house that they are going to rob in the near future with chapters set in the present. This back and forth of the time line keeps the reader off balance and scrambling to catch up. Then with one fell swoop the dual story lines converge and close the first part of the book with one of the great reveals of all time. I found myself re-reading that moment more then once as I tried to come to terms with what he just did. More so then most other writers Huston shows a brazen willingness to yank the rug out from under his characters and his readers.
Another way that Huston manages to throw us off balance in tense situations is by abruptly switching the POV in mid-action sequence. He does this quite a few times and the outcome is quite unsettling. Right as you are settling into the skin of a character and the natural flow and rhythm of a scene as it unfolds you are jolted out of whatever comfort zone you have created. The effect leaves you spinning around and around so fast that you dont see the punch coming that knocks you flat on your ass.
Huston is a master of creating and maintaining dramatic tension. There are few that do it better. Most books start out on 11, back off after that initial burst to create back story and develop characters then slowly ramp back up to that first energy level. Huston manages to introduce back story and character development too but he does it all at full speed. There are no breathers, no pauses for reflection and no false back story moments that only exist to serve the present action.
One of his new tricks is to literally freezes the action in a tableau that gives us a quick snapshot of each of the SEVEN POV’s involved. We are given a glimpse of what they are thinking and what they are about to do and just as suddenly as he stops the action he starts it back up again at full speed leting it all snap into place. The sudden perception of speeding up the action is incredible.
The Shotgun Rule has a pretty good sized cast of characters and they are all developed fully and given their own identity. One of the characters that we come to know much more about is one of the fathers, Bob. In the movie The Patriot there was a fantastic scene where Mel Gibson hatchets a man to a gruesome and bloody death in front of three of his children. Its a telling scene because he had been a solider who had fought in brutal wars who retired to a life of quiet seclusion and his family had only ever known him as this quiet, composed, quiet guy who didn’t want to get involved in anything especially another war. But in that moment his children see for the first time this other side of him, the one filled with a berserker’s fury and an insatiable blood-lust. Bob we come to realize has a past. When his sons are in trouble Bob lets the beast out of the cage to help them. As we learn what he is capable of he goes from being a strict father to a very frightening figure whose shadow looms large over the second half of the book.
The setting of California in the early 80’s is just as realized as the characters. From the music being listened to the importance of the BMX bike in the lives of the kids to the effects of the punk movement as it started to trickle out west to the afterimage of the fading 70’s as the 80’s and the next generation started to stake out its own identity. The story takes place on the cusp of a change. The older generation of characters refuses to accept that they are getting older; the younger generation aren’t kids any longer as they come into their own. In the aftermath everyone will be different; some for the better and some not but I think that it’s safe to say that it’s a summer that none will ever forget.
Charlie Huston’s first stand-alone book may just be his best one yet.