The Devils You Know, Ben Sanders
If you're new to Ben Sanders work then you've got some catching up to do. Starting out with the Sean Deveraux books - THE FALLEN (2010) and BY ANY MEANS (2011) - Sanders announced himself as a purveyor of hard-boiled, American based, whatever it takes crime fiction, part hard-man, part lone-wolf, part sad guy against the world; always crash or crash through. From there he created the Marshall Grade series - AMERICAN BLOOD (2015) and MARSHALL'S LAW (2017) - both of which used the same sort of style, with a character that fitted into the hard-boiled, gun obsessed, blood soaked American lone wolf stylings (as I put it at the time) like a clenched fist in a black, leather glove. In 2019 he came out with THE STAKES which ramped everything up a notch, adding scammer to the hard-man character, incorporated a female sidekick, a hitman and enough twists and turns to engage the most jaded of thriller readers (this one I particularly enjoyed).
Now in 2021, Sanders' latest release is THE DEVILS YOU KNOW, this time with a central character who is himself a jaded, surfer ex-covert ops agent, who has sworn off violence and guns. So you'd think a job as head of security for a millionaire supermarket mogul would be a bit of a breeze. Not so, as it's not long into his new luxury living and a spot of surfing lifestyle, that Eugene Lamar is shot dead, along with most of the occupants of the Santa Barbara mansion, with Vincent barely getting himself and Lamar's daughter Erin out alive.
Fast-forward to a supermarket owner who owed a lot of money to a lot of very pissed off people, a daughter who may or may not know more than she's letting on, a US Marshall who's hard to fathom sometimes, and it looks like Vincent is all that's standing between daughter Erin, some very determined people, and the need to take up a gun despite his squeamishness.
It's easy sometimes, in the world of noir, hard-man based thrillers, to think it's all been done before. And whilst there are many elements here that have most definitely been done before, Sanders has developed a way of creating hard-men characters who are engaging, a bit fragile, and very real. There's even a touch of possible romance in this one that kind of works. Of course there's plenty of action as you'd hope in this sort of thriller, and there's a truly amazing level of violence of the kind of expect from an American gangster style story. There's a lot of rushing about, and thumbing of noses at the bad guys, all delivered in a prose style that's razor sharp, with a dry sense of humour given free rein.
Part of my more lukewarm response to the earlier novels by this author was because their predictability was, well, a bit too predictable. Competently delivered and very readable but perhaps not as new or surprising as you'd hope. On the other hand, these last couple of outings - THE STAKES and now THE DEVILS YOU KNOW - have warmed the response markedly. Both of these have taken the predictable elements, slapped them onto the page, and then twisted them around some truly good characters, some seriously impressive action, and some clever plotting to come up with something that's readable, engaging and quite exciting.
Vincent needs a change. He's spent the last fifteen years in covert operations for the US government, but after a botched and fatal mission, he decides he's done with pulling triggers.
He lucks into a dream job in Santa Barbara as head of security for supermarket mogul Eugene Lamar: nothing more than driving the boss to and from golf, with ample downtime for surfing, or sitting by the pool contemplating life-and how to live it with a zero body count.
There he meets and is intrigued by Lamar's daughter, the journalist Erin Jones, who's on tour in California to promote her book about the benefits of war. Vincent's seen his share of conflict and is sure he can change her mind - and he'd really like to make his case over drinks.
But there's a problem: if Lamar's business is confined to supermarkets, why does he need a panic room full of assault rifles, and a .357 revolver in his car? It doesn't take long for Vincent to find out that Lamar owes a debt to bad people - and that's only the start of it. He's ensnared in a criminal enterprise, which soon brings costs in lives as well as money.
Erin wants answers, and needs Vincent's help to get them. But how much does she already know? Is his growing attraction to her a liability? And can he keep her safe from the brutal killers who are after her father?
It seems that Santa Barbara is a sunny town full of dark talent, and Vincent will have to revert to dark talents of his own if he's going to survive . . .