There’s a school of thought when it comes to sausage-factory fiction: don’t think too much about how it’s made. While masters of the craft like Lee Child, Michael Connelly and the rest (I’ll include John Sanford as a bonus) may blaze the charts and snag lucrative film/television deals, there’s no escaping that undeniable fragrance emanating from the literary abattoirs from which they come:
There’s a certain comfort in the predictable and familiar, like watching a marathon of Law & Order: SVU and knowing that, if you need to step away for a few minutes, you’ll won’t miss anything important. Structured properly, these by-the-numbers stories of murder and other nefariousness ‘ripped from the headlines’ plotting offer an easy way to lower our mental inhibitions just enough to relax, yet still engage on some superficial level. Comfort Food, just typed out.
Four books in, Owen Laukkanen is a writer no doubt eager to join their ranks, but so far the output has been less than stellar. Entertaining, sure, but little more than that. In my review for last year’s Kill Fee, his third book, I commented that in Laukkanen’s world “characters come and go, leaving little trace behind them, reacting to situations and plots entirely without the granular detail that makes such things so delicious.”
If that sounds perilously close to actual literary criticism and a bit snobbish, well, guilty on both charges. But, after reading through The Stolen Ones, I not only stand by every word, I want to shake them up. Just a bit.
So what makes this effort superior to its predecessor? Ironically, it’s less the preposterous plot but how the silliness is handled (no worries, fans, it’s still every bit as preposterous as the others). Here, it’s all about the structure, and Laukkanen manages to keep pace with a number of shifting narratives like a champ, threading the needle just enough to keep us interested until the final page. Yes, the template is familiar and lifted verbatim from his other works, but he juggles the pieces better here.
So let’s get to the actual plot: the last time we followed FBI Special Agent Carla Windermere and Minnesota State Investigator Kirk Stevens the two were taking down an internet contract-killing psychopath. You’d think this would’ve earned them a vacation (and in Stevens’ case, it kinda does) but since there’s no rest for the wicked the two demographically skewing officers of the law aim their sights on a despicable practice all its own: human trafficking.
And for that we’ll focus on Romanian sisters Irina and Catalina Milosovici, who seem savvy enough to be familiar with smartphones and Facebook but somehow still manage to get themselves bamboozled by a handsome American promising them fame and fortune in America. Naturally, it isn’t long before the pair find themselves boxed up and shipped alongside fellow unfortunates
Selling these women is lucrative business, and there’s no shortage of international baddies all vying for a piece. The system is deceptively simple: shipments of girls arrive via boat, then transported across the country via trucks to sleazy way-points along the way. This has worked well in the past, but with clients’ tastes skewing younger all the time, one man has designs on the future. That would be Pavel Demetriou, aka The Dragon, the syndicate’s requisite big bearded, knife-wearing kingpin whose role is largely relegated to croaky phone calls and barking out orders.
What follows is your typical race against the clock as the dynamic duo bust through clues – and plenty of villains – to save untold women from a life of servitude. Again, Laukkanen shuffles through the different perspectives better than ever, even if you can see the finale coming miles away.
There’s still far too much forced character building (subplots involving Stevens’ daughter and Windermere’s spicy love life are atrocious), and I’d hate to see his penchant for “final act rage violence” become a millstone he can’t quit. So is The Stolen Ones great fiction, or even great detective fiction? Nope, but it’s certainly a step up from Laukkanen’s last adventure for Stevens and Windermere, and this gives me hope for the next. And all the ones after that. Because, well, this is still sausage-factory fiction. Try not to think too much about how it’s made.