When you read a book about a dog -- from Marley & Me to Where the Red Fern Grows -- you've got a pretty good idea what's going to happen near the end. Same goes for a Nora Ephron movie. Or a Horror flick. But you still read or watch them, and you cry, or laugh and "awww", or jump in your seat when you're supposed to. Even on repeat reads/viewings. But when done right, those things just work. Similarly, think of a roller coaster -- you may stand outside the fence watching the thing go around the track while standing in line (some lines give you plenty of opportunity to study), and armed with that study, as well as the your own eyes, you know that track is going to drop from in front of you in a couple of seconds -- or the coaster is about to hit the loop -- that doesn't stop your stomach from lurching when it does.
Why do I bother with that? It's a thought that kept running through the back of my mind while reading Closer Than You Know. By the time I hit the 10% mark, if you'd made me write down what I expected to happen -- the reveals, the twists, the story beats, etc. -- I'd have gotten an A. I'm not saying I'm smarter than the average bear or anything, anyone who's read/watched a handful of thrillers would've been able to, too. And it worked. It absolutely worked. How Parks pulls it off, I do not know, but he does. He's just that good.
And all the stuff that I didn't guess? Oh, man, it was just so sweet when Parks delivered it, there were a couple of scenes that just left me stunned. And, I should rush to note, the way Parks made a couple of reveals that I'd seen coming from the start were so well done, it was like I hadn't called the shot.
In his previous stand-alone, Parks said that he wanted to write about the thing that scares him the most -- his children being kidnapped. Closer Than You Know taps into a very similar fear -- Child Protective Services taking your child from you, leaving you to the mercies of the machine where you're presumed guilty. This time instead of "the bad guys," faceless criminals, taking someone's kids, this time it's the forces of justice, of law and order, taking the child -- they're celebrated for it, they're doing it "for the best interests of the child."
What's worse is that no one will tell Melanie Barrick why her infant son had been taken from his daycare. Melanie spent most of her childhood in the Foster Child system, and most of that time in the worse situations that system has to offer. This isn't the stuff of nightmares for Melanie, mostly because I don't think she has enough imagination for her subconscious to cook this up. And then she's arrested for possession of cocaine and paraphernalia suggesting distribution -- a felony that will guarantee she's about to lose her little Alex for good.
Melanie is a "good person" -- she's one of the success stories that we don't see as often as we'd like from the Foster Child system. She worked to put herself through college; has a great, supportive husband; a lousy job (but with benefits) -- but one that will help her family get somewhere; and is a devoted, doting, loving mother. The kind of person we all want to think we're surrounded by, but fear we probably aren't.
From this point on, it's a cyclone for despair as every part of her life -- her job, her husband, her brother, her friends, her finances, her sense of privacy and security -- is affected, is under siege during this ordeal. Can Melanie maintain her hope, maintain her innocence, maintain her conviction that she'll hold her baby boy again?
In charge of prosecuting "Coke Mom" (the press is always so quick with these nicknames), is Amy Kaye. Amy Kaye could easily be the protagonist in any legal thriller, she's just the kind of character you want to read in that kind of thing. She's smart, dedicated and driven -- at the moment, she's primarily concerned with a serial rape investigation that she's doing pretty much on her own. Amy starts to make progress for the first time in years when she's put on this prosecution (largely for political reasons) -- which she's more than willing to do, but she hates to take away time and attention from the rape investigation. What really makes this difficult for Kaye is that Melanie is one of the most recent victims in this investigation.
So basically, things are not going well for these two women. There are occasional moments where there is hope, where there is a hint of humor, or life for them and it's just enough to get you to let your guard down before the gears turn again and life gets bad. Melanie seems to be a living embodiment of Murphy's Law -- things just never go her way in this book. As she notes herself, addicts talk about hitting rock bottom -- she isn't like them, she keeps finding new bottoms. It's during this part of the book, where the gears keep grinding away, where the Justice System seems most like a machine, and least like a method for determining (not presupposing) guilt, that things will really get to you. That stomach lurching I mentioned earlier? That image came from somewhere. It feels so real, it feels like this is something that actually happened to someone that Parks spent hours interviewing. I don't know how you read these parts of the book and not get demoralized -- but unable to put the book down, because you just have to, have to know what happens next.
As I've said before, I've been a Brad Parks fan since the first time I read his debut novel -- and I miss Carter Ross, the star of his series. The bad thing for me reading Say Nothing and Closer Than You Know is that these are so good, he's going to spend years doing books like this and I don't know if he'll be able to get back to Carter. On the other hand, I can't complain really if he's putting out reading that's this compelling. Yeah, I said the book was largely predictable -- and you'll likely find it the same. But you will be wrong about some things and you won't know how he'll show you that you're right. Think of a NASCAR race -- we all know that it's basically a series of guys going fast and turning left -- but it's how they go fast and turn left that makes all the difference. Parks delivers the goods -- the word riveting doesn't do this book justice. It's compelling, riveting, gripping, exciting, and will make you rethink so much of what you may believe of the Criminal Justice and Child Protective systems. You will laugh, you will be stunned (in good and bad ways), you will give up hope for this poor mother.
And you will hate when the book ends -- as much as you breathe a sigh of relief as you know you have some degree of closure.
Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Dutton Books via NetGalley in exchange for this post -- thanks to both for this.