FBI Special Agent Sandra Rose is called out to the scene of a home invasion turned hostage situation. It feels routine, but serious -- and when things go wrong in pretty unexpected ways, it goes really, really wrong -- and lets you know right away that this is not a book for the faint of heart. As nasty as things start out, the tattoo on the perpetrator's back points to things getting worse, "half tattoo, half scar tissue," is how it's initially described. Later we're told a bit more:
It was a Railroad tattoo. Carved by machete onto the man’s back, coloured by blue tattoo ink. Two long parallel lines stretched the length of Razinski’s back interspersed with a number of horizontal lines joining the two lines together.
Yeah, "carved by a machete." You read that right.
Two thoughts spring to mind. I'll never complain again about the needles on a tattoo machine during shading again; and Brolly is really not messing around here.
This tattoo is the mark of an Urban Legend, an "X-file", a Wild Goose, an FBI Snipe Hunt -- one that unfortunately might not be a legend, a Snipe or anything but a reality that the Bureau should've taken seriously years ago rather than writing off as a myth. Immediately Rose arranges for the one man who believed in The Railroad's existence, former Special Agent Samuel Agent to be brought in for a consultation.
Lynch not only believed in their existence, he's a victim of The Railroad. Six years ago -- when he started to make some progress against them (if you ask him), Samuel Lynch's 7 year-old son, Daniel, went missing. Lynch has long believed -- scratch that, known that The Railroad was responsible for that disappearance and that knowledge and drive to uncover the truth about Daniel's disappearance and The Railroad's existence is what led to his dismissal a few months later. Now he's being told that Daniel hasn't been killed by The Railroad, but that he's alive, and still in their custody. There's hope. A small bit of hope.
At this point, I don't know how to talk much about the plot without spoiling things. So I'm going to get vague. Things go wrong in ways that boggle the mind and stretch credulity (not beyond the breaking point, however). Not only is The Railroad real, its influence and power is, too -- its reach extends into the FBI and likely is the reason that Lynch found himself out of the Agency. Things start to happen very quickly once Lynch and Rose begin interrogating the hostage taker, and soon they're working together against the clock for one last shot at The Railroad. Rose working within the system and Lynch once again very far away from it.
The pacing is great, the plot is riveting, the writing is compelling -- and the reader will be with these two right up to the very explosive ending, holding your breath frequently enough that an asthma attack might be triggered. Beyond that, I'm going to do something here I don't normally do (but may begin doing more often, I like it) for "the opinion" portion of this post. As I thought about The Controller in preparation for this post, I found my thoughts falling into three categories -- let's take a look at them in order: The Good, The Bad and The Iffy:
I've already talked about the pacing, plot, etc. -- all the mechanics are really well done and serve the mood and tenor well. So let's focus on some of the character work here in this section.
While diving into this investigation with the drive and passion almost equal to Lynch, Rose does have an outside life. Her sister is on her case continually to see their mother, to look in on her -- she's suffering from some sort of dementia. It's so hard on Rose to see her mother that way that she's responded by virtually abandoning her, she's had no contact with her for ages. It's hard to sympathize with, to have empathy for Rose because of this attitude -- but it's as real and understandable as it is despicable. The way that this daughter avoids the mother who has forgotten her stands in stark contrast to the way that Lynch will stop at nothing to see and help his son (who has likely forgotten him after all this time). Brolly could've spent time beating the reader over the head with this, but he doesn't. It's just there for you to see and draw your own conclusions about.
Lynch isn't a broken man -- well, he is, but he's not broken down and beaten by life (although you couldn't blame him if he had been). Life, circumstance and some truly evil men broke him -- he's a shell of who he used to be (in probably every sense). But what's left in the ruins is a hard, almost merciless, near obsessed man on a mission who will not deviate one iota from that mission once he has a glimmer of hope.
Rose, she's flawed, but she's the kind of law enforcement agent you want to believe the world is full of.
She was working on little more than a hunch, and hunches were something she couldn’t abide. Real police work was completed by hard work and diligence, by analysing facts and evidence. Hunches were for a bygone era, for rogue detectives, for fiction and television.
Not that I think many FBI Special Agents consider themselves "police," but I like the sentiment anyway. And while she's this kind of Agent -- she's got all that baggage. She is not a perfect character. She's probably one of my favorite characters this year -- her partner for this case (the official one, anyway), McBride is a fun character, too. We don't get a lot of him, he essentially functions as Rose's assistant, but he's a lot of fun (in a book that doesn't bring the fun very often), and I'm so glad he's around.
The criminals are well conceived of and well executed. There are monsters walking around in human skins -- and we get to see a few of them here. However, this leads us to...
I don't understand The Railroad. I don't get their purpose, their actions, how they accumulate power and how. I do get that they're one of the most evil shadowy conspiracy organizations that I've read about. They don't seem to want to take over the world, or bring down governments or anything -- but they're horribly evil. Monstrous doesn't come close to capturing their brand of evil. My lack of knowledge stems from the fact that we don't get a big motive-explaining, super-villain-gloating, exposition-heavy monologue or three from anyone from The Railroad. And I love that. I also am fine with not understanding the group in a certain way.
But if you're going to give me some big conspiracy that wields influence in at least one national government, I need to believe they have a reason, something. As Walter Sobchak said, "I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos." The Railroad probably as an ethos, but no one tells us what it is, and I have a really hard time accepting it because of that.
Earlier, I referred to something stretching credulity -- that particular event results in far too many dead bodies and far too little fuss surrounding that event. Given the nature of that event, there would be great internal FBI pressures -- and likely Homeland Security reasons to keep it quiet. I'm fine with that, but that wouldn't stop it from kicking off a major -- probably multi-agency -- investigation, preventing almost everything that happens in the FBI offices from happening for the rest of the book. I'm not saying Rose and McBride couldn't have done what they do, and Lynch obviously could've pulled off a lot of what he did -- but there needs to be more Federal Agents of various stripes on the ground making life hard for them to accomplish what they do. That should've been explained away/justified/something. It's not The Railroad's influence, unless their reach extends that far into the Government, and we're not given that indication.
Let's start with the easy one, and one that bugged me from early on in the book: how has this obsessed and unemployed man paid rent, bought the copious amounts of alcohol he uses and funded his obsessed investigation? Lynch has no visible means of support and a decent amount of expenses. It wouldn't take much to explain it away, but we're not given it.
I get why this is set in the US -- Texas in particular. The Railroad needs the space, the extensive rail system, etc. to exist. The plot demands decentralized law enforcement. But if something is set in the US, the characters shouldn't all talk like people from the UK. The term "Jumper" connotes something very different in Texas than London. Nor should anyone be seeing a lorry on the Texas Interstate, use a Sat-Nav, call their mother "Mum" or "Mummy" and many other things. Brolly is not the only writer to do this kind of thing (many of my favorite novels over the last couple of years do this, too), he just seems to be one of the worst offenders I've run across. It takes me out of the moment, re-engages whatever disbelief I've suspended and draws attention to any other problems there might be.
Lastly, a couple of days after I finished this, I noticed that this is labeled as "Lynch and Rose #1," and it made me re-evaluate a lot. I'm not sure how this works as a series. Maybe a duology -- possibly a trilogy (I can't see it as an ongoing series -- Rose and McBride, on the other hand...). That would likely take care of a lot of my questions about The Railroad, so I'm happy about that. But knowing there's a second book leaves me with a different idea about the end of the book -- the last line particularly. But there's nothing in the novel that makes you think there's another book on the horizon. It's not impossible, and I trust that Brolly has a strong idea about what's next. But I didn't, at any point, think "I can't wait to see what Lynch and Rose do next." I did think, "I wonder what Brolly has coming out next," and am curious how something he writes set in his own country feels.
Now, I'm afraid that given the space I've given The Iffy and The Bad that The Good has been overshadowed -- also I can't talk about all of The Good without removing any reason you might have to read the thing -- which is sort of the opposite of my point. This is an exciting read with some very interesting and flawed characters (flawed by design, not by Brolly messing up), and a kind of evil, conspiratorial organization that ticks every box on your wishlist for evil conspiratorial organizations. Yes, I have questions, and yes, I found the ending less than entirely satisfying. But all that came up when I started thinking about the book for the purposes of this post and in terms of a series. Were this a stand-alone that I just read and hadn't written about? I honestly think I'd have just shrugged off the issues if they'd occurred to me. Also, I'm pretty confident from the way he put this together that Brolly knows precisely what he's doing and that many of my misgivings will be addressed in Lynch and Rose #2 -- and I will be pouncing on that as soon as I know it's available.
It's exciting, I like the characters, I was genuinely surprised and shocked a couple of times, horrified a couple of times and I want to know more about what happened -- Brolly made me curious when he could've easily made me disinterested. I can't list precisely just what it is about his story telling that did the trick, but it worked, and that's what counts. It's by no means a perfect novel, but it's good.
My thanks to damppebbles blog tours for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials (including the novel) they provided.