When an author can get the hairs on the back of your neck standing on end within the first few pages of a novel, you know that he or she is worth the valuable time you will spend reading his or her work. Such was the case by the third page of SLOW FIRE, Ken Mercer’s debut novel.
Following a short, enigmatic prologue that hooks you in, chapter one begins with what seems to be a softly erotic vignette that tugs you into the deceptively quiet city of Haydenville, near the northern border of California, where a cancer is spreading. The cancer is methamphetamine, and the cure that the city has hired is Will Magowan, a former police officer working undercover in narcotics who had been brought down by the twin tornados of job and personal tragedy.
It has been over two years since Magowan has worked when he receives an offer to become the police chief of Haydenville, and his tenure begins with two significant events. The first is the discovery of what appears to be a drowning victim who in fact may have met a more nefarious end. The second is a bar room brawl that, among other things, brings Magowan into contact with Frank Carver, a local celebrity whose notoriety some three decades before became the springboard for a literary career that produced but one book. Carver, a cross between William Burroughs and Hunter Thompson, is well-liked in town but not by Magowan, who slowly comes to suspect that Carver and his twin sons are behind the crystal meth epidemic that threatens to overrun Haydenville.
Meanwhile, Magowan is wrestling with his own demons, not the least of which is a substance addiction that he has deluded himself into thinking he has under control and is superimposed upon a Messiah complex that leads him to feel he is responsible for remedying all wrongs he encounters and to be immersed in guilt when he fails. To complicate matters further, Magowan is attempting to reconcile with his estranged wife, who left him in part because of his addiction to his job and to drugs.
Through a series of missteps, Magowan finds himself generally at odds with the citizens of Haydenville, with his only supporter being Thomas Costello, a young and inexperienced police officer who lives and breathes law enforcement and is his second-in-command. Neither Magowan nor Costello have any quit in them, and what Magowan ultimately uncovers through instinct and stubbornness is a plot that goes way beyond the confines of a once-peaceful California town and far back in time. It is wise for readers not to become attached to any one character, as not all of them make it to the surprising ending. Magowan is one complicated guy.
The double climax resolves some matters but leaves a couple unanswered as well, so that the promised sequel will no doubt be much anticipated and well-received by those who sample Mercer’s prose, which is addicting in its own right.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 23, 2011