The Killing Season by Mason Cross THE KILLING SEASON

Mason Cross (carterblake.net)

Orion (www.orionbooks.co.uk)

£12.99

The first thing you should know about me is that my name is not Carter Blake. That name no more belonged to me than the hotel room I was occupying when the call came in.

Caleb Wardell killed nineteen people with a sniper rifle before he was caught and sentenced to death. Now, free once more, and with a Remington 700 sniper rifle in his hands, Wardell decides to finish the job he started before his imprisonment, adding the names of the people who helped put him in prison to the top of his list of targets. FBI agent Elaine Banner is part of the task force assembled to bring Wardell back into custody. It doesn’t take long before Banner realises that independent consultant, Carter Blake – a man who specialises in finding people who don’t want to be found – has a better idea of where Wardell is headed, and a better chance of catching him, than anyone else on the task force. As a deadly game of cat and mouse ensues, the body count mounts, and Banner and Blake discover that someone else is using Wardell for their own sinister purposes. And Blake has secrets of his own, secrets that may hold the key to understanding where Caleb Wardell is likely to show up next.

Carter Blake, like all good thriller protagonists, is something of a mystery when we first meet him in Mason Cross’ debut novel, The Killing Season. Like the best protagonists, he remains a mystery when we reach the end of the novel, despite having spent a good half of the story inside the man’s head. He’s a fairly simplistic character – nothing but a false name and a set of rules – but Cross injects him with enough personality, and tantalising glimpses of a secretive past, to flesh him out and make him more than the two-dimensional cardboard cut-out he might well have become under less favourable circumstances. He’s a man who knows how to handle himself, a man with enough military and/or special ops (we never find out) training to ensure he puts up a good fight when required.

Counterbalancing Blake’s close-to-the-chest approach, Cross gives us Agent Banner, a single parent trying to balance her demanding job with the needs of her eight-year-old daughter. This is a character with whom we are on more familiar ground: we learn more about Elaine Banner in her introduction than we do about Blake over the course of the entire novel. She has everyday problems, and faces challenges with which we can easily identify: the demands of parenthood; conflict and tension in the workplace.

The third viewpoint we are presented with is that of Wardell himself. Like Blake, Wardell is something of a mystery, and we never know more about his plans than do his opponents, so his ultimate destination remains as much a mystery to us as it does to Blake and Banner until the final reveal. What we do learn quite quickly is that this is a man utterly without remorse and completely dedicated to the task at hand, despite the randomness of his targets. He’s a frightening and realistic character, plucked from the headlines, a prime example of art imitating life.

Around these three characters, Mason Cross has constructed a fast-paced chase novel designed to keep readers and protagonists alike on their toes. Following in the footsteps of the likes of Lee Child or Michael Marshall, Brit Cross has produced an American-set thriller that rings as true as if it had been written by a native Chicagoan. It’s not by accident that I’ve plucked those two names from the ether: Carter Blake shares some of the traits of Jack Reacher, and The Killing Season caught me in much the same way as Child’s debut novel all those years ago. And there are some structural similarities to Michael Marshall’s Straw Men trilogy – the multiple viewpoints, one of which is in the first person (that of Carter Blake himself, which makes the fact that we know as little about him at the book’s close as we did when it opened something of a coup for the author); the ever-increasing sense of tension as the novel progresses. Needless to say, The Killing Season stands on its own, a highly original and thoroughly enjoyable read, an excellent start to what this reader hopes will be a long and entertaining series.

“Number one: You pay me half up front, half when I catch your man. Number two: I work alone. I won’t be coming into the office nine to five. I won’t be joining the team for beers once we put this guy back inside. If you’re buying me, you’re buying an additional resource; that’s all…Number three is that if you’re paying me to catch your guy, you’re paying me to do it my way. My way is whatever works best. Sometimes it’s entirely legal, sometimes not.”

The Killing Season marks the arrival of a new “must-read” author on the British thriller scene. In Carter Blake, Mason Cross has produced an engaging character whose wit, mysterious background and often dubious moral stance keep the reader coming back for more, and elevates The Killing Season from just another thriller to one of the finest you’re likely to have read since Jack Reacher stepped off the bus in Margrave, Georgia all the way back in 1997 (now, there’s a statistic that makes me feel old!). Cross makes Chicago and the surrounding area his own and his characters, despite his own background, are as American as American can be. A seemingly effortless and assured debut, you’ll be jonesing for your next Mason Cross/Carter Blake fix before you’ve even finished this first helping.

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