“Shady Cross” by James Hankins

Shady Cross“Shady Cross” played like a movie in my head from the first page. One of those intense, claustrophobic movies, shot with a shoulder-mounted camera, with no sound track and a lot of close-ups of desperate people and dismal places, that I’d like to look away from but can’t.

The story is told from the point of view of Stokes, an habitual criminal with little empathy and less conscience, who blames the fact that, in his thirties, he has no family, no friends and no money, not on his own weak character and poor judgement, but on the fact that he’s just never caught a break.

This is not a world view I’m used to living with. I felt as comfortable as if I’d just put on a shirt drenched in someone-else’s sweat.

Yet I kept reading.

Why?

Because of the “what will he do?” dilemma that baits the hook this book reeled  me in with.

Stokes finally gets a break. He has a dead man’s backpack in his hands with $35o,ooo  in it, that he can just walk away with and no one will ever know. Then a phone in the backpack rings . He answers it and little girl says, “Daddy? Are you coming to get me? They say if you give them money they’ll let you take me home.”

I found that I really wanted to know what a man like him would do in those circumstances.

“Shady Cross” has three things going for it that kept me hooked: constant tension that is delivered at an almost exhausting pace and intensity; a plot with so many unexpected turns and frustrations that you feel you have to keep reading so you can find out how it all works out; and the character of Stokes a fundamentally flawed man who is quite hard to like and almost impossible to trust but who I still found myself rooting for from time to time.

The audiobook version of “Shady Cross” is nine hours and ten minutes long. I gulped it down in two sessions and wished I’d had the time to read it without stopping.

There are two things I didn’t like about “Shady Cross” The main one is that I could never quite buy Stoke’s motivation for continuing to try to do the right thing, no matter how ineptly, rather than looking after his own interests. It’s not that this wasn’t explained, it’s just that I didn’t believe the explanation. The second thing is related to first thing and it’s the way Stokes feels about how everything works out. I bought what happened in the end, just not how Stokes felt about it.

Still, it’s a fun way to spend a few hours and it does what thriller should do: keeps you guessing and keeps you turning the pages.

Bon Shaw does a great job narrating “Shady Cross” and keeping me inside Stokes’ unpleasant head. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.

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