This is how we must talk when we talk about violence, when we talk about terrorism. We must discuss the inability to process the event, to wrap our brains around large-scale carnage. After an act of terror, such as the one that detonates on the opening pages of Red Right Hand, Chris Holm’s second installment of his “Michael Hendricks” series (LJ 9/1/16), there are always more questions than answers.
“Terror attacks in particular,” says Holm, “are an unusual sort of violence. They’re at once political and personal, abstract and concrete. Whenever one occurs, a bifurcated narrative is created.” It’s this notion of the splintered search for truth that drives not only the novel but also its curious mix of characters, who defy the easy characterization of heroes and villains. Everything and everyone, like the smoke that rises after a tugboat slams into the Golden Gate Bridge early on in the novel, exist at least in part in the shadows.
A writer’s obligation
There’s a duty as an author, especially one who deals in murderers, to treat violence with respect, as a tool to enhance rather than to prop up the story. For Holm—whose main character is a hit man who kills other hit men in the hopes of one day bringing down a shadowy criminal organization known as the Council—there is the acknowledgement that “first and foremost, I want my books to excite, surprise, and entertain,” but he underscores that he feels “a responsibility to handle violence with due heft.”
In Holm’s thriller, which revolves around a terrorist attack on American soil, brutality is undeniably at the forefront of the conversation. And yet, in a lesser writer’s hands, an event such as the fictional explosion Holm sets in motion in San Francisco, allegedly at the hands of the Syria-based group known as the True Islamic Caliphate, could read as a tired rehashing of news headlines or worse, as an attempt to cash in on a currently trending hot topic.
Holm avoids both these pitfalls by making Red Right Hand less about the means of the attack and more about what happens in the minutes, the hours, the days afterward. Of course, it’s not during every terrorist attack that a long-dead (or is he?) criminal–turned–federal witness turns up on social media, setting off his own chain of internal explosions within the FBI and its less-than-legal counterpart. Even when the grainy image of Frank Segreti, a Council-affiliated killer with a long list of bodies to his name, shows up in cell phone footage, Holm still steers the story away from big, showy action that leaves human emotions smoldering in the bone dust left behind.
It’s here that the split narrative comes into play, the careful bifurcation of the macro and the micro. “[O]n the national scale, [it] is very public: an investigation, a manhunt, a security response,” explains Holm. “The other, at ground zero, is very private: countless acts of bravery and venality, countless friendships forged or torn asunder, countless moments of fear and hope and loss. In a way, it’s like a localized apocalypse.”
Both Hendricks—who reluctantly travels to San Francisco at the urging of FBI Special Agent Charlie Thompson to find and protect Frank Segreti from the Council who want him dead—and Segreti flit in and out of moments of bravery and venality, slippery men both. To say it’s unexpected that a man who compiled an extensive, creative kill list for the Council would befriend a recent widow in the wake of the San Francisco attack, and that their tender though never sexual interactions would form much of the emotional core of a novel about extremists and bombs, is a gross understatement. But those are the kinds of books Holm writes. In addition to his acclaimed series debut, The Killing Kind, and myriad short stories, he’s also written the “Collector Trilogy”—Dead Harvest, The Wrong Goodbye, and The Big Reap—which reimagines fantasy through the lens of crime pulp.
Holm’s writerly fascinations revolve around questions of what makes ostensibly good people do bad things, and how bad someone can be without becoming irredeemable. Through Hendricks, the author explores both. Two books into the series, and whether Hendricks is a “good guy” or a “bad guy” is not only impossible to answer, but also no longer seems relevant. Hendricks might be a killer, but he destroys even more sadistic assassins who are hell-bent on taking out their targets, civilian casualties be damned. Still, does that make Hendricks, the man who does our dirty work, “bad?” No. It makes the world a place full of uncertainties and grey areas.
It’s fitting that Holm would set most of the novel’s action in the same foggy bayside California city as Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film, Vertigo, another tale of shifting identities with a bifurcated narrative. “It was only as I started writing,” notes Holm, “that the thematic resonances with Vertigo b egan to bubble to the surface of my mind…. I fell in love with Hitchcock’s films way before I should have been allowed to watch them. As a storyteller, he’s unparalleled, and he’s doubtless warped my mind in countless ways.” As the author puts it, “The slipperiness of what we consider to be our essential selves is a common through line in all my books. Whether Hitchcock is to blame for that, or he simply tapped into a preexisting fascination in me, I’m not sure.”
Jordan Foster is a freelance writer living in Portland, OR. She received her MFA in fiction from Columbia University. She has also profiled Patricia Cornwell, Alafair Burke, and Megan Abbott for LJ