"Carroll is the Australian writer who has most fully and consistently approached the dark and alienated world of Americans like James Ellory and Andrew Vachss..." Continent of Mystery, Stephen Knight (MUP, 1997).
Sometime in the early 2000's, deeply immersed in an obsession with J.R. Carroll's books (which at the time were very hard to get hold of) coming across that quotation was a nice vindication of the book quest that was occupying a bit of my book buying time. It is, however, sheer coincidence that I'd be re-reading Continent of Mystery at the time that Momentum release some of Carroll's back catalogue, and the latest book - 8 HOURS TO DIE. There were no surprises, however, in the reaction to the news, which I must admit was one of excitement. Carroll writes dark, conflicted, complex characters balanced in the edge world between good and bad. He sets those characters in dark, difficult and very realistic places, and throws plots at them that twist and turn like a corkscrew, slowly dragging the truth out into the murky light.
Needless to say, this reader came to 8 HOURS TO DIE with extremely high expectations. Expectations that wobbled a little at the start. As much as I love dark and conflicted, I've developed a violent gag reflex when evil starts lurking about behind gumtrees in the bush. The symptoms are even worse when the location is remote, completely without outside help. Of course the phones don't work, the generator can be switched off, and the victims are conveniently sitting out in the middle of nowhere with "come and get us" signs welded to the front gate.
But Carroll's a very good writer, and whilst there does seem to be an inevitability about the fate of the cop and his wife, in their remote house, with the lurking threat of outlaw bikies, there are, right from the start, enough questions to hold the reader. Motivation is an immediate intrigue. Despite Fontaine's past as a cop, and present as a lawyer, there's nothing immediately obvious about why 3 bikies would go to all this trouble to attack him. That remains a question in the back of the reader's head for quite a lot of the book. There's less waiting for the results of the house invasion. Once the lights go out, things happen quickly and violently. Interspersed with the current action, there are chapters of background for each of these bikies. They fill in the personal, as well as the circumstances that led them to become not just outlaw bikies, but violent killers. It doesn't bode well for Fontaine and his wife, as there's not a lot of hope in the background of each of these attackers.
For some readers, those interjections of the background might distract from the action in the present. For this reader, they contributed quite a bit to the threat - an understanding of who these 3 are, and how there past informed their current behaviour actually made the whole thing somehow more disconcerting. Particularly as the details of Tim and Amy are less fleshed out, perhaps because are destined to be the victims.
It wasn't long before expectations were firmly back on track, and the way that 8 HOURS TO DIE twists and turns right to the last page reminded me, yet again, of just how much I love J.R. Carroll's writing. If you've never read any of his books, Momentum have presented everyone with the perfect opportunity to rectify that immediately and that's a cause for much celebration! http://momentumbooks.com.au/authors/jr-carroll/