By J. M. Hayes
HC from Poisoned Pen Press
May, 2009, $24.95
Poisoned Pen Press is probably the elite crime fiction publisher in the nation right now. Their standards are very high and under Barbara Peters gimlet eye and firm editorial hand, they rarely stumble. Having Bob always around to beat the drums doesn’t hurt, either. In fact, their growing power in the crime fiction community allows them to support authors who are interested in stretching their personal visions as authors.
SERVER DOWN, is a good example. J.M Hayes is engaged in writing a series set in the flatlands small mid-Kansas, largely rural, community in Benteen County. The series, this one is the fifth episode, is a gentle tongue-in-cheek riff on an old and rude English public house song with the refrain, “Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noon day sun.” Principal fellow is a part Indian Kansan who yearns to be a Cheyenne shaman. His adopted moniker is Mad Dog. His brother, the Sheriff of Benteen County is named English. It’s a family name. So naturally, people here and there refer to the Sheriff as Englishman. Mad Dog is a militant pacifist who is forever getting involved in causes, peaceful protests. That of course sets him against movers and shakers who’d like to develop the hell out of Benteen County.
Among his other interests, Mad Dog is a gamer. He apparently satisfies his bloodlust with a computer game called War of Worldcraft. Unfortunately, it turns out the massive violent game has more to it than mere pixels on a screen.
Mad Dog is in Tucson to witness classic Indian Easter ceremonies when life goes off the rails. His home back in Kansas is blown away and he’s now accused of murdering a local officer. Things spiral out of control until his entire family is at risk and the bodies begin to fall with such rapidity that it becomes difficult to keep track. It’s where the author has begun to take risks. Will his audience, used to the slightly off-kilter amusing antics of the Benteen characters, moving in generally placid currents, accept the grittier, more violent and hard-edged tone of this novel? I hope so, because this is a dandy novel. Of course the press is taking a risk as well. Author Hayes is an excellent writer and if the novel gives short shrift to the compute game that is part of the fundamental functionality of the plot, the characters and their trials are far more interesting anyway.
An eminently satisfying story, the characters perform viciously or admirably as are their roles and of course there’s Hailey. Everybody’s favorite wolf. Excuse me? You haven’t met this creature? Too bad. You’re missing one of the most interesting, effective, and silent law enforcement figures to come down the pike. Tall dark and handsome, Hailey is something else and he’s mostly silent in the bargain. Even with the focus mostly in Tucson, rather than Benteen County, Kansas, this is a fine addition to the series.