In 2009, Sandra Brown wrote a fabulous book called SMASH CUT. Its featured protagonist was a private investigator named Dodge Hanley, a former cop composed of one large rough edge with a talent for getting the job done. He turned out to be one of my favorite literary characters of the year. While not normally her practice to revisit a character, Brown has made an exception in this case. Her new novel, TOUGH CUSTOMER, heralds Hanley’s welcome return, and the result is a riveting, fast-moving work that you will want to read as quickly as you can turn the pages.
Hanley is out of touch and out of time. He smokes like a chimney, casually uses crude language, and is used to making his own rules. His most popular retort is “Sue me,” and he doesn’t care one way or the other about almost anything. There is one exception, though. And for that one exception --- a woman from his past named Caroline King --- Hanley leaves the familiar Atlanta environs of SMASH CUT and heads back to Houston, a city of bittersweet memories and still-open wounds.
Hanley’s 30-year-old daughter Berry, who he had with King and has not seen since the day she was born, is in terrible danger. The reason for the separation is slowly revealed as Hanley deals with the immediate threat to Berry. That threat comes in the form of Oren Starks, Berry’s former co-worker. Starks has been stalking her at work and at home, and his attentions have been gradually and violently escalating. Hanley’s heels have barely hit the Houston metro area streets when Starks begins claiming other victims, leaving a winding trail of mysterious clues as he works his way back toward Berry.
Hanley joins forces with local deputy sheriff Ski Nyland, whose dogged determination to bring Starks to justice is motivated in part by the almost immediate attraction he has for her. As for Hanley and King, it soon becomes obvious that the feelings they had for each other some three decades before have not diminished. As the narrative proceeds along two tracks, past and present, we learn the circumstances that led to their long-ago affair, while Starks’s bizarre behavior puts more people in the Houston area in danger as he plays a cat-and-mouse game with Hanley and Nyland.
Brown is well known for incorporating interesting and suspenseful plot twists into her novels; that being said, she outdoes herself here. At one point in the story, I literally shot out of the chair; I simply never saw it coming. Of course, Brown drops lesser explosions than that huge one throughout the book, even as she causes you to truly care about what happens to her primary and secondary characters. And Hanley is a character worth keeping and returning again and again. If he makes it to the end of TOUGH CUSTOMER, that is.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 23, 2011