First line: "Ray McMullin, standing waist deep in chest waders, leaning hard into the current, his rod bent against the steelhead's run, wasn't a fisherman."
Steven Gore's third Harlan Donnally novel is steeped in explosive issues, and Gore's approach indicates he isn't shying away from blasting one or two off in the course of this plot. Whether you've read either of the previous two Harlan Donnally's or not, you'll want to pick up Night is the Hunter.
Two decades ago, Judge Ray McMullin cut his teeth on a gangland murder case. It was the first and last capital case he presided over, but he proved to the world that he was capable of "pulling the trigger." When Israel Dominguez was found guilty of of first degree murder, McMullin sentenced him to death. Now the execution date is nearing with no realistic appeal options left, and McMullin is questioning his decision while Dominguez continues to profess his innocence.
McMullin, still convinced Dominguez is ultimately guilty, asks ex-cop Donnally to look into the twenty-year-old crime in an effort to reassure himself he made the right call on the death sentence. Investigating the case takes Donnally into the battle lands of the Norteño and the Sureño gangs where he uncovers disturbing evidence in Dominguez case and discovers clues to a murder that's a lot more personal.
The first land mine of an issue, and probably the most obvious from the plot description, is that of capital punishment. Gore explores it from several different angles, flushing out the shades of gray in a controversy many paint as black or white. Sneaking in around the edges of this main theme comes questions of the prison system as well as police discrimination. An especially powerful scene occurs early in the novel when Donnally encounters an ex-gang member. While he's talking to the former Norteño member a pair of active duty officers stop to check out what's going on. One of the cop's comments upset Donnally:
"Donnally felt a flush of annoyance at the cop's descent into crook slang. By accommodating himself to the lawlessness it implied, it legitimized the criminal way of life. It made it seem that the criminal world was the entire world, not the badlands, and that the police weren't representatives of the law, but only of power. Using the language of the gangsters made the police department into just another gang."
Gore does not portray the entire profession in this light, but he doesn't deny the existence of this mentality either.
Whether readers end up agreeing with depiction of the legal system, Gore offers a tremendous amount to consider in timely, rich and controversial themes. Excellent fodder for book discussion groups.
Additionally Night is the Hunter provides readers with a slew of fascinating characters. Donnally's interaction with his father in a subplot of the novel leaves readers with an Escher-ist feeling--what exactly am I seeing here? what is real?--and Judge McMullin elicits strong empathy. The attorney who represented Israel Dominguez, Paul Ordloff, is complex and artfully developed. But most of all, Donnally humanizes--without excusing--the gangs and the people associated with them. His portrayal of these feuding factions is one of the novel's greatest strengths.
Finally, Night is the Hunter is an addictive, fast-paced, engaging read. It's a thriller. The plot is tight, it offers excellent twists and it keeps the reader braced for what's around the next page. This one's a must for crime fans.
Night is the Hunter is available in trade paperback (ISBN: 978-0062025098) from William Morrow. My review is a part of the TLC Book Tour for the novel. You can find a complete list of blogs reviewing the book as part of the tour and see what others have to say about it at the TLC website. You can learn more about Steven Gore at his website and follow his Facebook page.
Disclosure: I do some contractual work for one of the owners of TLC Blog Tours. My work with them does not obligate me to a specific kind of review. The reviews are still my own opinions and reflect only my thoughts on the novels. If you care to read more, you can find more information on my Disclosure page.