November 11, 2011

Rabid Reads: "Hell and Gone" by Duane Swierczynski

Hell and Gone
262 pages
ISBN 9780316133296

I read the first book in the Charlie Hardie trilogy, Fun and Games, back in the spring and it wound up becoming my favorite book of the year so far. While I've been fortunate to read a lot of great books this year, Fun and Games easily remains in my top three and I wouldn't be surprised to see it stay there. But what about its sequel, Hell and Gone? After a powder keg of a debut, I had to wonder just how in the hell Hell and Gone would be able to make par, let alone surpass, the first book. Now, if you haven't read Fun and Games yet, stop reading this right now and go find a copy, because I'm about to spoil the ending of the first book.

Hell and Gone picks up almost immediately after the crazy shootout at the end of Fun and Games. Charlie Hardie is beat up, broken down, shot, and handcuffed to the gorgeous woman who tried really hard to have him killed. Law enforcement and paramedics arrive, separate the two, and whisk Charlie off in an ambulance. But before he knows what's happening, he's drugged and whisked off to a secret location, only to get drugged again and taken to an even more secret location. Eventually he's awakened and finds himself in a room with Mann, the woman who tried to kill him, the woman working for a secret organization of assassins called "The Accident People" (if you've listened to the diatribes Randy Quaid has spewed for the last year or two about celebrity killers, in his efforts to evade U.S. authorities, then you know the type I'm referring to).

So, Charlie wakes up with no idea how long he's been unconscious, or why he's even still alive. Mann confronts him and tells him he's been conscripted, in a sense, to work for the same organization she works for. Turns out he's sent way underground to a super-secret security facility known as Site 7734. Seem like a peculiar name for an underground prison? Well, punch those numbers into a calculator and turn the calculator upside-down. Do you get the significance now? Yeah, not exactly idyllic conditions.

It's at this point where the story really goes down the rabbit hole--literally if you think about it. Where Fun and Games was a high-octane shoot-'em-up through the Hollywood Hills, Hell and Gone felt closer to a psychological thriller akin to The Prisoner. The only thing missing was a giant amorphous bubble chasing Charlie down when he tried to escape. There's an intriguing, albeit convoluted, subplot involving one of his fellow inmates, but the main focus of this book had Charlie trying to figure out where he was and how to get out in order to exact his revenge and save his family. But at every turn a monkey wrench is thrown into the gears of his surroundings and it becomes a game of simple survival.

The action and suspense is as palpable and hot-to-the-touch as I expected, but it was the setting and focus of the story that really threw me. I will heartily give Duane Swierczynski all the credit in the word for using rocket fuel where other authors might use gasoline to propel his books forward, but the Kafka-ish underground prison was about the last place on Earth I expected Charlie Hardie to wind up. And what's even crazier is where Charlie winds up at the end of the book. I can't even wrap my head around that plot twist.

In one sense I was disappointed with Hell and Gone because it didn't go where I expected it to go after Fun and Games. Conventional thinking on my part, I suppose. So in another sense, I have to tip my hat to Swierczynski for taking a Gatling gun to my preconceived notions. At this point, I have no idea what to expect when the third book comes out in 2012. I just know that I am on board Charlie Hardie's insane bandwagon and can't wait to read Point and Shoot.

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