Can a spy novel have sex appeal? Of course it can. Tall, magnetic,
brooding characters inhabit many a thriller. But Will Staeger's
debut doesn't fall back on clichés to create his surprisingly
W. Cooper, as he decided to call himself a few years prior to the
beginning of PAINKILLER, is an aging, angry, cynical, alcoholic
former CIA operative, and a cantankerous hermit --- a womanizing
hermit, one who specializes in extortion as his means of making a
living on top of it.
Sex appeal? Yes. I can't help it. Staeger reveals the softer side
of the seemingly hard-edged Cooper in a fast-paced, no holes barred
novel. I found myself caring about him more and more as the novel
progressed, but I first noticed my response in chapter three: when
a seemingly meaningless murder case rudely arrives on the beach
near Cooper's hermitage, the Virgin Island cops want it disposed
of. Cooper turns out to be the only one to empathize with the
plight of this lost soul.
A tattoo on the victim's neck, which turns out to be a voodoo brand
--- you will find zombies, medicine men, serial killers, and more
--- leads Cooper to see this victim's plight as one and the same
with his own, and he can't help himself but get involved in
Bulling his way around Hiaasen-esque china shop settings (Puerto
Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic), Cooper finds there's more
behind this murder than the Virgin Island cops were ready to
confront. All hard-edged thriller fare. But along the way we also
discover that Cooper has offered a helping hand to a number of
other troubled souls in his picturesque island neighborhood.
I found myself reacting to Cooper much like the heroine does.
Despite the tension and annoyance Julie Laramie experiences upon
first encountering Cooper, he's the kind of man she wants on her
side. She's a crackerjack satellite Intel analyst who finds a small
clue in one of her daily SATINT reviews. The clue leads Laramie to
a secret scheme by a Chinese general to buck the trend of
"Sino-American" friendliness and assemble a multinational
conglomerate intent on eliminating the world's leading effecter of
regime change as an opponent.
The two cases, and Cooper and Laramie themselves, inevitably come
together, but not before we get a gritty look at the Caribbean
through the hero's skeptical eye, along with a pretty strange
journey by a mine --- the kind that blows ships out of the water
--- thought lost as far back as the Vietnam War.
In the same way that Cooper appears to be one thing but is another,
PAINKILLER --- part thriller, part crime fiction, part quirky, dark
and different --- is a hard-edged, cinematic, and tremendously
engaging first effort. You might even say it's a spy novel with sex