Monday, July 21, 2014

First Tastes: Jack Kerley's Carson Ryder

In a new ongoing series for the revamped Crime Watch, we will be regularly taking a look at novels in which some terrific authors first introduced their series protagonist (often the author's debut novel).

As I said on Saturday, although crime fiction is full of twisting, exciting plots, and can have great settings or delve into social and other issues, for me, in the end, what makes it particularly great at times is the fantastic characters. I've decided to start with a character I first met a few years ago after picking up a debut novel from one of those 'five books for $20' type bins at Whitcoulls in downtown Auckland (overseas readers - that is very cheap for books in New Zealand): Jack Kerley's Carson Ryder in THE HUNDREDTH MAN.

It's fun to absorb the first raw notes of a new voice, crossing fingers and hoping to uncover a gem of an author and/or character worth following through books and years ahead. Kerley, John Burdett, and Stuart MacBride (whose debuts I also picked up around the same time), were the new-to-me authors who stood out for me in that way that year - I fell for their storytelling styles and unique voices and ended up reading several of each of their books over the following months, all that were then-available.

In THE HUNDREDTH MAN, advertiser-turned author Kerley’s debut tale hits like a hammer right from the opening pages, quickly moving from missing fingers to missing heads, all in the sweltering heat of Mobile, Alabama. Detective Carson Ryder is both admired and loathed by colleagues and superiors, having hitched onto the fast-track following a successful serial killer pursuit the year before – seemingly thanks to Ryder’s innate understanding of “crazies and freaks”. The thing is, Ryder also has a secretive ace up his sleeve, or perhaps more of a joker or wildcard: his brother Jeremy, an incarcerated serial killer. Ryder has done a lot, including changing his name, to hide this part of his past, but Jeremy helped him on the case that made his young career, leading to plenty of internal and external tension for Ryder.

The whole serial killer helping an investigator trope isn't that unique in crime fiction, but Kerley brings a fresh take to it, not just because of the familial relationship, but the well-drawn characters of Ryder and Jeremy. The relationship between the brothers, as well as Ryder's conflicted feelings about his sibling, add extra layers to what is a well-plotted and exciting book, storyline-wise. I remember thinking at the time that there were some great possibilities to see how things evolved both with the character of Ryder, and his relationship with Jeremy, over the course of more than one book, and that did prove to be the case. Jeremy is one of the most fascinating 'villains' I've read in any book series in a long time. The Alabama setting was also fresh, and to me seemed well-evoked (I had travelled through that area during some US travels).

In THE HUNDREDTH MAN, two headless bodies scrawled in barely decipherable ranting spark junior detective Ryder (something of a young upstart) and veteran partner Harry Nautilus onto the trail of another serial killer, one that dredges up past secrets for many people, including Ryder himself. He's forced to turn to his brother, something he doesn't want to do as he's trying to further establish his career. Ryder and Nautilus are the Mobile PD’s Psychopathological and Sociopathological Investigative Team (PSIT), which is dismissively called “Piss-it” by other police colleagues.

On his website, Kerley says that Carson Ryder's name came from combining Kit Carson, the renowned frontiersman and Albert Pinkham Ryder, the 19th and early 20th-Century American artist. I found Ryder, at first offering, to be a very interesting character, a little different to the typical detective, although he of course exhibited some classic traits: doggedness, courage, a murky past (despite his youth) that created ongoing issues to deal with, etc. For me, the best storytelling strikes a balance between the familiar and the unique, and matches engaging characters with exciting plots and well-drawn settings.

In THE HUNDREDTH MAN, Kerley’s writing puts a huge tick in all boxes, but more importantly, brings everything together into a gripping tale unfolding naturally from the characters, backstory and setting – never feeling forced by an authorial puppet-master. It was a gem uncovered, and made me want to read more.

At the time, I gave the book four and a half stars out of five for Good Reading magazine. Looking back, I stand by that rating. The series as a whole is great, and it was kickstarted in terrific, gripping fashion. but


You can read more about Jack Kerley and his Carson Ryder series here:


Have you read any of the Carson Ryder novels? If so, what do you think of the character and setting? What other recurring crime fiction heroes would you like to see featured in the First Tastes series moving forward?

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