Penance by Dan O’Shea – Book Review [Shadowhawk]

20 Penance

Shadowhawk reviews one of the first launch titles for Angry Robot’s new crime imprint Exhibit A.

“A flawed but fast-paced and nuanced thriller that is guaranteed to have you on the edge of your seat.” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields

Thrillers are a weird genre for me. I don’t really read that many thrillers, although I kind of enjoy one on occasion. Clive Cussler, Jeffrey Archer, Lee Child, Dan Brown, John Grisham, I’ve read a fair few. I just prefer something more… fantastic. A novel that is rooted in the contemporary, that is very “real-world” just doesn’t interest me all that much, on a general basis. At the same time though, I wouldn’t turn from a chance to read one, especially if it is an imprint of Angry Robot and is newly launched, as Exhibit A is. My love for Angry Robot books, minus a few I didn’t like, isn’t all that a secret, and them doing a crime imprint, especially when their Young Adult SFF imprint Strange Chemistry has been so successful, was an exciting opportunity I couldn’t pass up on.

Dan O’Shea’s debut novel is deeply rooted in Chicago politics and is a fairly well-written story about controversies, espionage, murders and secret government agencies. In the first few pages, it was a bit confusing since I didn’t immediately pick up on the separate timelines that were being presented, but the book quickly gets the reader beyond that point and into the nitty-gritty of it all.

One thing I never quite worked out was what kind of a novel it was. Being a reviewer has made me more aware of certain things and sometimes the analytical mind kicks into overdrive. I kept wondering if as a police procedural the novel was an indictment of the homophobia and racism that was rampant in the 70s, or whether it was just propping up its characters with somewhat cliched portrayals so that the “good guys” and the “villains” were easily recognisable. I kept wondering if this was a novel like Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential movie, which is set in the ’50s and is a similar kind of police procedural/corruption/scandal exploratory narrative, and is itself based on a James Ellroy novel. Penance definitely gives off a mixed vibe in that regard. It didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the novel by any means, but the thoughts were always there. Weird how that turns out.

Police procedurals/crime mysteries can be a lot of fun at times and Dan O’Shea has certainly written the novel in a style reminiscent of any number of television shows in the same genre. The mystery is involved and engaging, the characters are interesting in and of themselves, and the climax is an adrenaline rush.

Detective Lynch, who is the main protagonist of the novel, was certainly one of the most interesting characters in the novel. He starts off as a typical police officer who is committed to finding his quarry, but he grows into much more than that. He becomes someone willing to challenge the highest level of authority to make sure that those who deserve to have the heavy hand of justice served to them get it. This change also comes at the cost of him admitting to his mistakes and his flaws, and growing out of them into a character who learns as he goes along, rather than staying one-note and one-dimensional throughout.

His chemistry with hotshot reporter Liz Johnson seemed a bit forced at times, but it was also dealt with respect. Neither of them threw themselves at each other after their first meeting. And Liz was definitely never subservient to Lynch’s character throughout the narrative. She was independent and had her own agency, another point in favour of Penance. Police procedurals typically don’t have all that many interesting female characters and Penance is an exception to that observed rule.

There are plenty of bad guys in the novel, whether we are talking straight up thugs, or good guys gone bad, or even those “good guys” who straddle the neutral gray are really easy and have no trouble flip-flopping either way. The sniper Fisher, and the Intergov top-guy Weaver fit the role of the second and third of those descriptions. What made the novel really interesting was that the way O’Shea had written Fisher, I ended up completely underestimating the relevance/importance of the character, right up until the revelations started flowing and I began to read more about what kept him so ticked off. With Weaver, his arc started off really well, and when the switch happened, I was disappointed in him as a character (and not the way he was written). Weaver definitely let me down because I expected better of him. But then I suppose it is the same with those characters who don’t have a moral compass anymore. They are not unlikable per se, but it is always a bit sad to see a character who ends up this way.

A good thriller relies on an escalation in the tensions between the characters, and the more action-oriented ones, especially where special forces type of agents are used, rely on some well-written action sequences. Dan O’Shea delivers on both counts quite handsomely. The inexplicable sniper-shooting of an old woman as she exited a church builds up into something else entirely when the reader discovers that there is a large controversy at work, something that has its hooks into some of the darker moments of Chicago’s political past from the ’70s (as presented herein), and that these hooks extend all the way into the highest offices of the American government and intelligence agencies. The plot is fairly complicated but not to the degree that things don’t make sense. They do, and the revelations and resolutions at the end are quite satisfying.

The action choreography is what I would expect from a novel like this. If anything, all the action sequences here are much better than the ones I read in, say, Dan Brown’s Deception Point. O’Shea has a good head for strategy and tactics involving his special forces agents and this lends the novel a very realistic and involved feel, putting the reader right into the middle of the action. It was certainly one of the high points of the novel. The climax is full of explosive and deceptive action sequences and it is in these moments that O’Shea appears to be the most comfortable and in his own element.

Given that this is one Exhibit A’s first wave of launch titles, I am certainly impressed enough to read more by the publisher. Given the line-up of their titles in general, it is certainly an exciting time for Exhibit A and for Angry Robot. Definitely pick up Penance and give it a try. You will not be disappointed.

Rating: 8.5/10

Note: This novel is graded according to a new ratings system, the details of which can be found here.

Shadowhawk is a regular contributor to TFF. A resident of Dubai, Shadowhawk reads, reads and reads. His opinions are always clear and concise. His articles always worth reading.

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