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Bad Signs


Bad Signs

- Click here to read Joe Hartlaub's review.


Review #1 by L. Dean Murphy

Their ages separated by 17 months, half-brothers Elliott “Digger” Danziger and Clarence “Clay” Luckman are orphaned in the early ’50s, when their common mother is brutally murdered by Clay’s estranged father. He “hit her in the head with a baseball bat and broke her neck.” This author’s novels usually have a generational span. Surprisingly, this one covers only nine days in 1964, though readers wade through a minutiae forest going back to the origins of many characters.

The siblings are institutionalized, forever getting into trouble. They spend the next decade in juvenile detention until convicted murderer Earl Sheridan (who’d “spent his life taking wrong turns and had wound up in a cul-de-sac”), en route to the gallows, is held at the same detention center during a storm. Stabbing guards with a kitchen knife, Sheridan takes Digger and Clay hostage, making good his escape.

"[Ellory] chooses to portray America not as 'Leave It to Beaver' reruns but as the gruesome essence of Hitchcock’s Psycho."

When Robert Frost came upon diverging paths, he regretted the inability to elect both; he chose the one less traveled. Psychopathic Sheridan brings his young hostages to a prong and shortly after is killed by police. Clay escapes and chooses the high road, craggy terrain accentuated by cliffs and valleys. “[W]alking against the wind,” Digger takes the low one, which leads to a metaphoric murky swamp. Without knowing why, both teens in nine days during November 1964 --- a year after President Kennedy’s assassination --- make irreversible choices, a lesson for observant readers.

At that road’s literal/metaphoric fork, and just before he’s killed by police, Sheridan offs Bailey Redman’s father the day her mother is buried. Bailey witnesses the crime and hides, while Digger and Sheridan become a terror team. Meanwhile, paternal instincts kick in, as Clay cares for Bailey. The two teens set off on a journey to Eldorado, Texas, a destination chosen from a magazine advertisement depicting idyllic suburban life. Clay feels as though he was born under a dark star, a bad sign: “Bad memories have long shadows. Spend the rest of your life inside of them and you never get warm.”

Readers observe the routes the brothers take and Sheridan’s demise, at which his dying words alter both boys’ lives. Curiously, BAD SIGNS is a story of hope and the existential nature of kismet, albeit enveloped in a shroud of violence. Both make choices that tempt fate and heart-wrenchingly affect their lives.

There are a few missteps. Although the Southwest interstate highway construction began in 1961, Ellory’s latest US release makes references to a completed highway grid, complete with age-weary fleabag motels lining those modern highways. Moreover, even the good guys/gals speak in the same voice --- a drunken sailor invective that would make a sinner blush.

Since I was born a few years after the “bad signs” duo, this tome hit like a 2x4. Only 18 months older, my brother chose an easy route, I the one more arduous. Half a century ago, neither of us could fathom the ramifications.

Following GHOSTHEART and SAINTS OF NEW YORK, award-winning author R.J. Ellory continues thrilling readers with intense crime fiction. He chooses to portray America not as “Leave It to Beaver” reruns but as the gruesome essence of Hitchcock’s Psycho. His novels contain disturbing violence seen daily in network news --- and in historic newsreels (the Manson family murders). Astute readers look beyond the graphic elements used for character development and view Ellory’s works for what they are: a literary forensic examination of the dark gestalt known as America.



Review #2 by Joe Hartlaub

BAD SIGNS was originally published in Great Britain in 2011 but is just now seeing hardcover publication in the United States. Whatever the reason for this significant gap of time, it has been worth the wait. This is a book that will leave your mind soaked to brimming in dark imagery, with plotting and characters so real you may well be afraid to leave home. Ever. Seriously.

The novel is set during a very long and deadly period of nine days in the American West near the close of 1964. It begins dark and bloody in California and continues in that manner through Arizona and New Mexico before reaching its apocalyptic ending in Texas. Though British-born, master craftsman R.J. Ellory truly gets the United States, as a whole and regionally, and that cultural savvy is on full display in BAD SIGNS, a couple of minor historical errors notwithstanding (California’s last execution by hanging was on May 1, 1942; restaurant customers were not segregated by race in 1964). He also brings his own childhood experiences to the fore, at least to some extent, in the persona of half-brothers Clarence Luckman and Elliott Danziger.

"Ellory’s wordcraft and perfectly honed characters make everything that occurs here leap off the page, from the book’s world into the reader’s."

The two had been raised in California state institutions as orphans from an early age. Elliott is older by some 18 months, larger but not wiser; Clarence is the more thoughtful of the two. Together the pair manage to form a unit that survives by sticking together through a series of transfers, even when Elliott's reaction to an attempted molestation lands the siblings in a juvenile detention facility. It is while being housed there that a series of events puts them in the path of Earl Sheridan, a convicted murderer who is scheduled for death row. In a display of the animal cunning that informs his every action and echoes throughout the book, Sheridan takes the boys hostage, forming a rift between them.

One is terrified and repulsed by Sheridan’s actions, while the other slowly comes to sense a dark and kindred soul mate in the murderer. One brother escapes; the other does not, choosing instead to participate in a killing spree that has law enforcement in four states and the federal government on edge and in pursuit. Worse, unknown to all, law enforcement is after the wrong brother. Only one man, a deputy sheriff in Tucson, has a nagging feeling that this is the case. But, as is heartbreakingly demonstrated here, knowing and proving are two very different things, and by the time the story’s end is reached, it may well be too late.

BAD SIGNS isn’t a one-sit read. Oh, you’ll want to take it all in at once, and you won’t be able to read it fast enough. But at certain points, it may take readers some time to recover from what they’ve just read. It’s not so much because of the violence that occurs but because of the aftermath and result. Ellory repeatedly demonstrates the uncontrollable cause and effect of happenstance, unfortunate and otherwise, throughout the novel. The result is that one literally does not know what will occur next. One example of this takes place about a fourth of the way into the book, when the plot careens unexpectedly away from whatever expectations one might have formed and then takes off in yet another direction. The closest one can come to predicting what will happen from moment to moment is to expect the worst and square it. Additionally, Ellory’s wordcraft and perfectly honed characters make everything that occurs here leap off the page, from the book’s world into the reader’s. It’s not always a good thing, but it’s a wondrous thing, indeed.

R.J. Ellory is a master, and BAD SIGNS ranks among his best works, one that should not be missed.

Reviewed by L. Dean Murphy and Joe Hartlaub on April 22, 2016

Bad Signs
by R.J. Ellory