Here now is the review of The Big Reap I should have written before sticking it on my favorite books of 2013 list. It’s difficult to put into words the frustration of having an addictive book you want to read but you just. Can’t. Find. Time. Particularly once a delayed flight allowed you to get past the setup’s and you can see exactly what kind of journey you’re going to be taking.
For this one, Chris F. Holm again delivers a cracking Collector adventure. As previously seen in the equally entertaining Dead Harvest and The Wrong Goodbye, Sam Thornton is damned to service with Hell as a Collector of souls. Years ago he traded his to save his wife’s life, now he wanders from body to body – some living, some recently deceased – collecting the souls of others who’ve made the same awful trade he did.
This time around, he’s been sent to dispatch a group of earth-bound monsters known as the Brethren. These former Collectors escaped Hell centuries ago, and have set up camp here as some of our most fearsome monsters. An uneasy truce has existed with them since their escape, but that’s recently been broken. An attempt to do away with them resulted in a cadre of demonic foot soldiers slaughtered, without so much as a scratch to the Brethren. Sam, however, has managed to kill one. Now he’s sent to find and destroy the remaining eight, all from within whatever frail human form he’s inhabiting at the time.
Holm has crafted great characters in Sam and his handler, Lilith. The rapport they’ve developed with each other over their years has given their conversations all kinds of subtext, and he writes their banter well. But the quality that makes this series truly work overall is how he’s mastered traditional hard-boiled patter. The distinctive voice of pulp, while it started in the trades, has become more recognizable thanks to classic films like The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity. Whether in the writing of Hammett or the films of Huston, it has a louche, jazzy rhythm that we immediately recognize, and it’s very easy for a writer to get it wrong. The mix of world-weary narration and machine gun dialogue have been used and/or parodied so many times, both well and poorly, that they can kill a book before the plot even gets rolling.
By way of example, consider this still from The Maltese Falcon (I’m a huge fan of this movie and the book, but I’ll keep my slathering brief).
Humphrey Bogart and Elisha Cook Jr., standing in a hall, provide the perfect contrast between pulp done well and pulp done poorly. Wilmer’s dressed in the proper garb for the genre – the big trenchcoat, the fedora – and looks like he’s swimming in those clothes. He looks puffed up, more like a kid wearing his dad’s coat and hat than a serious threat to Sam Spade.
The Big Reap, on the other hand, wears the pulp voice the way Bogart wears that pinstripe suit. Those clothes are tailored to accentuate his physicality and sharpness, just as the stylized writing Holm uses is both authentically purple and carefully cut to accentuate Sam’s struggle, along with his concern he’s beginning to like his job a little too much.The book breathes, expanding to allow his reflections on his situation before contracting to lean, efficient prose when describing the action and horror, to keep you turning pages.
So you can imagine the frustration of having to step away from reading such a well-executed story as often as I had to. Still, I’d gotten far enough and was entertained enough to know The Big Reap belonged on my year-end list of favorites. It has all the action, all the horror, and all the crispness of the earlier entries in the Collector series – but with a little more weight on Sam’s (borrowed) bones. Holm is a serious talent as an author with a particular skill for paying things off in a big way, and this absolutely deserved a slot. Now I’m just going to deal with the worry of whether I should have put it higher.