David Morrell is regarded as the father of the modern action novel. As lofty a title as that is, he is much more than that. Well into his fourth decade as an author, Morrell could be resting on his mountain of accolades while occasionally sending a communiqué of some value down from the mountain. Instead he seems to be working harder than ever, with even greater results. One could argue that he is entering a higher stage of his career, with some of his best work having been written during the course of the last several years. If, for example, you bypassed THE SPY WHO CAME FOR CHRISTMAS because you suspected it was a heartwarming seasonal tale with thriller highlights, you need to read it from cover to cover right now. What is most noteworthy about the book is that it demonstrates Morrell’s willingness to take chances, as well as his ability to meet and exceed all expectations.
This brings us to THE SHIMMER, Morrell’s latest effort, as impressive as anything he has ever written and as challenging an endeavor as he has attempted to date. It would be easy to classify it as a work of speculative fiction, and while the book does have some touches of that genre, it would be an oversimplification to do so, one that would not do justice to either the tale or its author. The focal point of the story is a nocturnal phenomenon consisting of a display of lights occurring over the city of Rostov, Texas. Rostov is a creation of Morrell’s imagination, but along with the light display, it is based upon a similar town and phenomenon in the real-world locale of Marfa, Texas.
Three significant elements converge upon Rostov in THE SHIMMER. One is a colonel named Warren Raleigh, the latest member of a family of military men whose lives have been connected with the lights for generations. Another is Brent Loft, who regards the lights, and a disaster that occurs during one of their sightings, as elements to be exploited on his way to prominence as a television anchorman with a national audience, a position that he sees as his inevitable and rightful due. The most interesting element of the book, even beyond the light display that gives the tale its name, is the relationship between Dan and Tori Page. Dan is a pilot with the Santa Fe Police Department; he returns home after a particularly harrowing day to find his wife unexpectedly gone, with only a terse note to him heralding her absence. In due course he discovers that she has gone to Rostov, a town of which he has never heard. Her absence functions as a wake-up call to him concerning their relationship, so he drops everything and journeys to the city to bring her home. What he finds is not what he expects, at least not initially.
Tori has come to Rostov to watch the lights, a phenomenon that first captivated her as a child. When he locates her, she appears to be in a trance; there is more going on here as well, and the manner in which they resolve their problems and breach the quiet distance between them transforms THE SHIMMER into a work that reads like an unlikely but highly readable collaboration between Frank Edwards and John Barth. Morrell is never gratuitously violent, but he does not shirk from it nor does he give short shrift to its aftermath. The result is a tale of redemption and transformation, obtained not without cost but all the dearer for the experience.
It is noteworthy that very few authors would attempt a work of this difficulty, and even fewer would succeed to the extent that Morrell has with THE SHIMMER. Put this one on your must-read list for this year.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 23, 2011