Title: A Killer in the Wind
Author: Andrew Klavan
Published: 8 January 2013
Pubisher: Mysterious Press, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic
Genre: crime and mystery
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Please note: This review contains mild spoilers. I have avoided revealing details about the plot, but I have written relatively detailed discussions of the major characters.
Dan Champion is a small-town cop who, when we first see him, is living up to his name in true hardboiled detective style. But Champion’s bold facade hides a troubled past – three years ago he worked undercover in New York, investigating a child sex slavery ring run by monstrous criminal known as the Fat Woman. Obsessed with finding her and tormented by the horrors of his work Champion started taking drugs to cope, resulting in some haunting hallucinations – a dead child who stares sadly at him, and a beautiful woman named Samantha, with whom Champion falls in love even though she doesn’t exist. Drug-crazed, Champion eventually botches the case, loses his chance of finding the Fat Woman, and gets sent off to the small town of Gilead for his sins.
But of course, his past comes back to destroy him. A woman washes up on the shores of the Hudson river, and when Champion arrives on the scene he’s shocked to see that it’s Samantha, the woman he hallucinated and fell in love with. “They’re coming after us”, she whispers to him, before passing out. Shortly after, Champion is attacked by the Starks, a terrifying pair of twin killers. He kills one, only to have his brother swear torturous revenge. The Starks had ransacked Champion’s house, but he has no idea what they could have been looking for or how Samantha is involved. The Fat Woman is hunting him down, and although this gives him another opportunity to catch her, he’s also forced to face the devastating secrets of his past and the ghosts that have been haunting him.
A Killer in the Wind hooked me with the first chapter. I really liked the writing – brash and hardboiled, sardonically relating tragedy and violence. It’s sort of serious without being entirely serious, and I thought it promised an entertaining read. We immediately get a heroic portrait of Champion, but then this is soon undermined by flashback chapters that tell his New York story. Suddenly, we see Champion miserable, stressed and discouraged. He might be doing good work, but he succumbs to drug addiction, and his one heroic moment is also one of his greatest failures. I liked this too; the contrast between current Champion and past Champion intrigued me, and I love a dark and dirty past.
I particularly liked the suggestion that Champion’s heroism is a facade: his name is so prosaic, that opening chapter was a little too cool, and the New York story shows us that he’s not quite the man he seems to be at first. I’m not trying to suggest that Champion doesn’t do brave and heroic things; he does. He’s a good person. But throughout the novel there’s a sense that he is who is because he’s trying to live up to his name, to fit himself into his idea of a hero. It’s a pretty traditional one – Champion seems to specialise in saving women and children, and he has a bit of trouble dealing with his emotions. His lover Bethany notes that he gets very angry when “someone hurts a child – or a woman, for that matter… or anyone who can’t defend themselves”. As we eventually find out, this entire story began with Champion trying to be a hero, the one who rescues a damsel in distress from the monsters who would hurt her. It’s not always easy: most of the time, Champion is able to be the hero he wants to be, but there are also many times when he fails – we see him terrified, vulnerable, and deranged, unable to defeat Stark or the Fat Woman.
So yeah, I like what Klavan did with Champion’s character, playing around with the concept of the hero, the champion. It’s not revolutionary – Champion is still the traditional hero at the end of the day – but it does add a little something extra to his character. However, despite the positive things I’ve said so far, you may recall that I only gave this book 5/10. Which means there are some major flaws I need to discuss. The biggest one is that in playing around with idea of the traditional, masculine hero, Klavan has produced some dreadfully traditional women to prop Champion up. They’re disempowered, clichéd, and boring.
The first is Bethany, Champion’s lover. She’s very beautiful and loves Champion, but he can’t love her back because he’s in love with the woman he once hallucinated. This doesn’t bother Bethany much. She’s available to tend to his wounds, give him the emotional insights he can’t figure out for himself, and be threatened by Stark so that Champion can swoop in to protect her.
Then there’s Samantha. It’s a long time before we really learn anything about her. In the first half of the novel, she’s imaginary, unconscious or missing. We know only that she’s very beautiful. Her most notable features are her auburn hair, and her very white skin. Champion knows her as an angel who comforted him in his time of need, but that might just be his fantasy. When we have proper encounters with Samantha later in the novel, she’s almost always a victim – a damsel in distress begging Champion to save her and put an end to these terrible things that are happening to them, or a neurotic mess for whom “being damaged is a full-time job”. Samantha shows some strength as an investigator and a survivor, but this is mostly in the backstory; the Samantha we see on the page is a quivering victim offering Champion a golden opportunity to be her hero. It’s so ridiculous that I wondered if Champion was hallucinating all his scenes with her, but if that were the case then most of the book could be a hallucination as well.
Finally, there’s the Fat Woman, who is both morally and physically monstrous. She’s hideously obese, and supposedly has no face. She kidnaps and sells children as sex slaves, so there’s really no room for ambiguity here – she’s evil. It’s pretty common for powerful women to be made monstrous in fiction, but Klavan deals her a double blow – he robs the Fat Woman of her power as a villain. However perverse her business operations, she must undoubtedly be a smart and purposeful person to run a crime ring. When we encounter her however, she’s nothing like the evil criminal mastermind I’d expected. She’s just a lumbering dope. Her role as Champion’s arch-nemesis had long ago been snapped up by Stark who is just one of her thugs. It’s so pathetic – the Fat Woman can’t even be a good villain; she needs a man to do it for her!
Stark at least makes a decent villain. He certainly has a terrifying appearance (you can identify the bad guys at a glance throughout this novel) – he’s so thin he looks like a skeleton, he keeps unnerving Champion with threats of endless torture, and he’s got a scary laugh. As a result, he does seem pretty creepy as he stalks Champion. The whole thing is a tad silly though. Champion killed Stark’s twin in a lucky act of self-defence; he didn’t hunt him down or something. Stark’s anger isn’t entirely justified; it’s more like the product of an insane mind. In fact, Stark doesn’t appear to be all that upset about his brother anyway. It’s more like he relishes the opportunity to go into psycho vengeance mode. Of course, this means that Stark passes up all opportunities to kill Champion with a simple bullet to the head. No, he has to let Champion live so he can make him suffer, giving our hero ample opportunity to save the day.
All the action that stems from this actually isn’t too bad, so I can’t fault the novel on that. I also love it when characters uncover dark secrets, and Champion has a few hiding away. But these things couldn’t save the novel for me. It started off well, but after Samantha was pulled out of the Hudson it went into a slow decline.
The blurb/marketing copy compares A Killer in the Wind to Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island and Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects. The comparison is fair in that the protagonists are all intimately entwined with the mysteries they’re trying to solve and their jobs become deeply personal in disturbing ways. But I don’t think A Killer in the Wind holds a candle to Lehane and Flynn’s brilliant crime thrillers. I found both of those memorable novels deeply intriguing, shocking, and tense and Shutter Island is one of the best novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading. A Killer in the Wind was never remotely as thrilling. Admittedly, the plot does deviate from crime thriller norms in some ways, but not enough. I think many readers could easily enjoy this, but it just didn’t work for me.