Thriller fans have become accustomed to practitioners of the genre conjuring up bigger and ever more modern arenas to stage their dramas.
When crooked White House politicians subverting national military networks got stale, thrillers went global, from country-hopping drug cartels and transnational crime syndicates, to crime in outer space. Jetliners, spy satellites and computer networks are the technological co-stars now.
In his latest effort, best-selling author Ridley Pearson starts readers off in a setting that's positively old-school: a freight train. In a boxcar coated with frozen chili and the blood of two men.
It's a gruesome but effective recipe for kicking off a worthwhile installment in Pearson's string of thrillers.
Peter Tyler is the lead investigator, a former homicide detective trying to make the most out of a second chance at life. At the scene he meets Nell Priest, the train company's investigator.
From the beginning, Pearson weaves a subtle dance between Tyler and Priest, two smart people with different agendas. Tyler wants to catch a killer, possibly related to the serial murderer who was hitching train rides between crimes. Priest wants to assist his investigation, while protecting her company from the fallout whenever possible.
But as one victim of the boxcar melee is finally discovered, and revealed as a member of the train company's crack special investigative squad, Tyler turns the spotlight on his new partner. What is the investigation really meant to accomplish?
Tyler's manhunter experience helps him acquire the trail of the suspect. As he tracks his target, Tyler comes to realize that the foresight and resources his quarry has put into his plan means he's much more dangerous than a spur-of-the moment thrill killer.
He's a wild card, and he has a serious obsession with the train company. It's the worst possible news for the railroad company, which has gambled its future on the success of an experimental high-speed train soon to take its maiden journey.
As the story develops, Pearson capably splits his plot into the investigation (finding the man responsible for the railroad agent's death) and the investigation inside the investigation (trying to figure out what the suspect's true motives are).
Pearson's ability to keep the plot lines veering away from each other and intersecting again smoothly, without noticeable discomfort to his passengers, earns him a place of honor in the thriller pantheon.
As the action moves from a Manhattan ballroom to the cars of a speeding, runaway train, Pearson keeps his characters on track, the dialogue humming, and the plot twists intriguing without straining credulity. The technological details and small moments that enrich the pages are delivered with authority and insight, helping to create a sense of discovery in the reader as well as the fictional investigator.
Before investigator Tyler closes with his subject, a widower named Umberto Alvarez, the reader has more than a few hints that the target of the search isn't what he seemed. How will Tyler and Priest handle the revelations that follow?
Even with the mystery solved, Pearson keeps readers happily turning pages until the end.
By Ridley Pearson
Hyperion, 384 pages, $23.95
Andrew Z. Galarneau is a frequent News reviewer of thrillers.