[7 July 2013]
Meet Brigid Quinn, the aging, tough, Arizonian protagonist of Becky Masterman’s soulful debut thriller, Rage Against the Dying. Brigid is an FBI investigator who is retired. She is in her late 50s.
An old, unsolved case has reared its head. Years ago, Brigid tried to find “the Route 66 killer”—a guy who was picking up and murdering women along the famous road that connects Chicago to Los Angeles.
Brigid and her colleagues think they have found the killer—a man named Floyd Lynch. He knows things that only the killer (presumably) would know. For example, he is aware that the killer sliced off the ears of his victims as souvenirs. This info was never released to the public.
An ambitious, young, slightly untrustworthy upstart, Laura Coleman, is working with Brigid on the case. Brigid’s former mentor, Sigmund, is also involved. He is nicknamed Sigmund because of his Freudian analytical skills. (One of many good things Masterman does is: make judicious use of nicknames.) Additionally, a shrewd local policeman, Max Coyote, is breathing down Brigid’s back.
Will Brigid be able to assist without sacrificing her marriage to a hot former priest named Carlo? …Brigid once lost a romantic partner because he was appalled by her line of work… Thus, understandably, Brigid is reluctant to share any reports on her sleuthing with Carlo.
As if investigating weren’t enough, Brigid has another grave task: desperately trying to keep alive a man named Zach, the father of Jessica, one of the Route 66 killer’s victims. Zach makes alarming jokes about suicide.
Throughout, Masterman is skilled at forcing her protagonist into situations that require lying. You rarely know what Brigid’s opponents are thinking, and there is often a life at stake.
For example, a scene I especially love in this novel involves a recent accidental killing. Brigid must lie about the killing. She is not sure she is persuading her interlocutor, Max Coyote. It’s also unclear to what extent Max is aware of the horseplay Brigid was involved in. Two people are being dishonest with each other, and the reader is left guessing. It’s been said that the source of good fiction is decent people behaving badly. That’s on display often in Masterman’s debut. The emphasis on espionage and false identities may make you think of Shakespeare.
Another strength: no scene seems to go on too long. The pacing is so masterful, you don’t even notice it.
And it’s fun to spend so much time in the head of a savvy, imperiled character. Brigid makes mistakes, and you understand why she makes them. You sympathize. The real plot is the evolution of Carlo’s relationship with Brigid—something that is keeping Brigid hopeful and alive. This is present toward the start of the novel, and it returns in a surprising way at the end.
Lastly, it’s worth noting that Masterman starts her story in a memorable way. The book begins in the third person. You see Brigid through someone else’s eyes. You “become” a serial killer—getting to know Brigid, feeling confused and surprised by her behavior. And then the focus shifts; you are suddenly inside Brigid’s consciousness, where you will remain for the rest of the novel.
This reminds me of something Adam Gopnik once wrote about classic American characters (in The New Yorker, “The Corrections”, 22 October 2007). You tend to hear a good deal of breathless murmuring about them before they walk onstage. This commentary adds to the character’s mythic stature. Think of the whispering about Captain Ahab toward the start of Moby Dick. Think of the gossip about Gatsby at the start of The Great Gatsby.
Masterman pulls off something like this in Rage Against the Dying.
Brigid won’t easily exit your thoughts, and Masterman will leave you hoping for a follow-up novel in the near future.
This is an auspicious debut.