23 February 2005

Review: Greg Rucka, Novelist

I first came across Greg Rucka's work in Gotham Central, during his Eisner Award-Winning "half a life" story arc (issues #6-10). In it, he puts his protagonist, Detective Renee Montoya, through the ringer in a well-paced, character-driven story of obsession and revenge. I'd only returned to comics less than six months prior at that point and was blown away by the difference in quality and style from the men-in-tights comics I'd grown up on and had initially sought out. Better yet, because Gotham Central takes place on the fringes of Batman's world, it was quality storytelling without the condescending pretension found in many non-superhero comics.


I'm big on supporting writers I like so I followed him over to Adventures of Superman when he took it over and was surprised to find myself enjoying the character for the first time, and it became the first and only Superman title I've ever bought regularly. I soon discovered that he was also an accomplished novelist and immediately tracked down his first novel, Keeper, to see whether his talents translated over to long-form fiction.

Keeper introduces Atticus Kodiak, an engaging character with an interesting supporting cast, and his chosen profession, bodyguard, is vividly depicted. Rucka is known for his meticulous research and he's apparently done his homework here as the overall scenario and the details he highlights all ring true. The story's backdrop, New York City at the height of the mid-90s anti-abortion protests and clinic bombings makes for a enthralling plot as Kodiak is charged with the protection of a pro-choice doctor. Rucka unself-consciously tackles the sticky politics of the situation, offering welcome shades of gray in what is often a black-and-white topic, while delivering a taut thriller that kept me on the edge of my seat through to the end. An excellent debut novel, I immediately went looking for the next one in the series, Finder.

Picking up three months after the events in Keeper, Finder combines another fast-paced plot with some welcome fleshing out of its main protagonist. Atticus Kodiak has issues and while, at 28 years old, I think he's implausibly young for what he does, this time that actually plays into the story as his relative inexperience - not to mention his immaturity in dealing with relationships - is highlighted when he comes up against the SAS, in what is basically an extremely over-the-top custody battle. Because he's so good at developing his characters, though, Rucka earns the reader's necessary suspension of disbelief. If there's one flaw in his writing, it shows up here in his depiction of a rather sterile New York City. The names and places are all correct but there's a certain something missing. Instead of the City being a living, breathing character, it feels more like a backdrop, like in movies filmed on the cheap in Vancouver. Overall, it's a solid effort that avoids the sophomore slump, and I anxiously moved on to the next book in the series, Smoker.

Rucka's primary strengths are his characterization and pacing and in Smoker, the third time's the charm as it all falls perfectly into place. Kodiak remains both aggravatingly introspective and immensely compelling, as does Rucka's social commentary and intricate plotting. With Kodiak protecting a tobacco industry whistleblower this time out, Rucka gets a little heavy-handed at times with the soapbox monologues but, again, because his characters are so well-defined and the plot actually makes sense this time, it works without ever feeling forced. His supporting cast is particularly strong here, with "John Doe" and Jeremiah Pugh stealing the show whenever they're in the spotlight. If Rucka ever scores a movie deal, this is the book I'd want to see on screen.

Rucka's prose is fluid and fine-edged, reminiscent of Lawrence Block's best work in his Matthew Scudder series of novels, minus the New York City grit that Block does so well. High praise as Block is not only one of my absolute favorite writers in any genre, he's also widely recognized as a master the crime fiction genre. From comics to novels, Greg Rucka has proven that he is a similarly talented, entertaining writer and I'm looking forward to reading more of his novels. And, of course, his comics, too!

Greg Rucka has worked at a variety of jobs, from theatrical fight choreographer to emergency medical technician. The author of A Gentleman's Game - based on the Eisner Award-winning graphic novel series, Queen & Country (Oni Press) - and six previous thrillers, he resides with his family in Portland, Oregon, where he is at work on his next Queen & Country novel, which Bantam will publish in 2005.

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