I would love, one night, to have a few drinks with an assassin. From what I’ve read, they seem to be nice enough guys. The good ones do, anyway. Like all the rest of us, they have loved and lost a beautiful woman, perhaps two. They fly-fish. They have noble grandfathers. And, unlike the bad assassins, the good assassins are made whole again by commiseration. They cry in their beers. Perfect drinking buddies: that’s how I like my mercenaries.
Ben Tails, the righteous killer in local author Gary J. Cook’s Blood Trail, is everyman’s hired gun. Sent at age 11 to spend a weekend alone in the mountains as punishment for needlessly killing a chipmunk, Tails knows the value of life. His vocation is to waste those who don’t. A sniper with a conscience, he does two tours of duty in Vietnam, where he is ultimately commissioned to hunt fellow Marines who have slaughtered some women and children. Forever changed by offing his one-time comrades, Tails remains in the country for eight years after the war, serving a secret wing of U.S. intelligence. (As you may know, many of film and fiction’s really cool wings of intelligence begin life nameless before submitting to a three-letter acronym.)
Eventually Tails returns home to Western Montana, becomes a police officer and takes up with Evy. When she dies in her sleep, Tails can escape her ghost only by returning to his past, so he goes back to Asia, this time to Japan, where he works for Raven International, an organization designed to solve problems that governments can’t properly deal with. (Really cool intelligence wings also have nebulous job descriptions.) The arrangement is that Tails will function only as a spy, infiltrating criminal organizations to verify the extent of their malfeasance. He will be dipping his toes back into the dirty pond, but no more killing. Rather than ruin things, I’ll stop here with the plot summary; you get the gist.
After a prologue set in the jungle, the novel opens on the eve of Tails’s reentry into his old life. Much of the above comes as back-story, sprinkled in at what the author deems opportune moments. Taken as they come—out of sequence and designed to establish character rather than advance the story—many of the details of Tails’ life feel extraneous, stalling an otherwise compelling narrative with too many protracted backward glances. The plot becomes cluttered rather than intricate and what could have been a fine hard-boiled thriller stumbles over its loftier goals. Rather than entertain, which he has the talent to do, Cook tries to tell us too much about what’s wrong with the world. The problem is, he doesn’t say anything new.
Nevertheless, Tails is intriguing enough to want to go back and read the first book featuring the character, 1988’s Graveyard Rules, as well as await the next one, which Cook promises is coming soon. Like most heroes of genre fiction—though he doesn’t seem to have realized it yet, my money is on Cook to understand that what he’s up to is genre fiction—Tails discovers his calling early in life. At age 17 he spies three rabid dogs chasing a doe. He immediately shoots two and tracks the third to a logging road, where fate introduces our hero to himself:
“He’d taken his time, sat down against a tree stump, legs crossed in what he’d later learn was a modified version of the sitting position, left elbow resting on left shin, right elbow solid into the bend of the right knee, and shot it behind the head, the big yellow dog slammed face down, legs sprawled comically to the sides like a cartoon dog run over by a truck, the sound of the shot fading across mountains gone silent…And in that moment, a moment as lonely as he would ever again be in his life, he’d learned that a life, any life, so taken, carries a judgment.”
If the prose sounds a bit overwrought, especially at the end of the passage, that’s because Cook often riffs too long and too zealously and then, even after he’s broken a string, keeps flailing away. Throughout the novel, he lingers over his scenes, ponders metaphysical questions beyond the point of interest, and leans a little heavily on the animal symbolism. (Aside from the woebegone lab, there are cobras, a couple of grizzlies, an elk, and at one point even some carp nibbling at floating cherry blossoms.)
But, when he’s not trying too hard, Cook can play his instrument. The book opens with a first-rate heroin purchase, Tails providing cover in the bushes with a cobra “gliding over and around and between moss covered rocks,” and there are at least two fight scenes that would make John Woo proud. These moments will raise the hair on your neck, just as they do to Tails. If he could have stuck to the fast action and avoid the moralizing, Cook would not have given us any less of a book. In fact, he might have ended up saying some of the larger things he wanted to say.
Blood Trail is available at Fact & Fiction in Missoula, Books West in Kalispell and Electric Avenue Books in Bigfork.