What starts as a revenge thriller twists into a race to save a city from certain destruction in this latest pulp drama from Hard Case Crime

Joe and Scott kick off in Breakneck

Breakneck starts at a phenomenal pace. We’re dropped straight into the action as a man armed with a baseball bat is about to exact revenge on another man he suspects of sleeping with his wife. What follows in the first frantic moments of the book is a steep escalation of drama, as an almost bewildering array of unknowns converge in a single knot of complex story, which takes the rest of the book to unravel.

However, once the knot is loosened, much of the intensity of the initial story falls by the wayside. There’s a ticking clock hanging over the proceedings (we’re told at various intervals that there’s only so many minutes until everybody dies), which writer Duane Swierczynski uses to help control the revelation of information. This is done non-chronologically, to keep as much as possible from the reader until the point at which Swierczynski wants to reveal it. As a result, we flip around in time to moments before and after the opening scene, but the ticking clock ensures it’s relatively easy to keep a grasp on what’s happening when.

The narration itself is unusual and, actually, a little annoying. It addresses the reader as if they were the main character (opening with “Your name is Joe Hayward and you’re here to beat the living fuck out of a man”). There’s no love lost between narrator and main character, which drives a wedge between him and the reader, too. It sits a little uncomfortably – I can’t decide whether it’s because it makes the story feel like it needs explanation or because it’s deliberately obfuscating things more than perhaps it needs to.

The art is nothing to write home about but it’s good enough for the job. The cast of characters isn’t broad, so there’s no problem keeping track of who’s who, but the sketchy lack of detail helps cement the feeling that this is a low-fi thriller.

By the time we reach the end, the promise of the beginning has faded somewhat, as it unravels into a more mainstream thriller plot. What initially seems like it’s going to be something a bit different fails to hold on to the spirit of its initial convictions, and ends up along a well-worn path. This, I think, is the book’s ultimate disappointment: a fascinating start point that fails to maintain its promise.

Scott and Joe make unlikely allies in Breakneck

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