Don't Mess With Texas Women
Strong Light of Day
by Jon Land
New York: Forge 2015
348 pages. $25.99 cloth
The spaghetti-like strands of plot in Strong Light of Day push and pull us through 350 pages of short staccato chapters filled with terse, tough dialogue. At the center of the story is female Texas Ranger, Caitlin Strong. Caitlin is called off a Cliven Bundy-like case in South Texas to investigate a group of missing children who disappeared from a state park southwest of Houston. One of the children is the son of her lover, and sometimes antagonist, Cort Wesley. So things are personal and, of course, Caitlin will discover relevant social concerns about Cort’s son that test their makeshift family. And with her we discover just how much danger she and all Texans are in.
Caitlin finds that the kids were at the same locale as a herd of cattle that were devoured straight to the bone—no blood, gristle, or guts. Simultaneously, some agricultural investigators help Caitlin find a genetically-altered monster beetle. While in Russia, a goon for hire, who likes to cut off fingers and other body parts, gets an order from the Russian FSB to take care of some problems over in Texas.
All of these strands lead to the bone crunching, flesh-eating, nearly cataclysmic ending, with the endangered Caitlin and Cort attempting to save Texas from an environmental disaster. Incredibly, Land makes all his plot points fit together. We get a sophisticated, complex, cynical view of world politics. We are just a little scared that this may all happen. And we’ve been thrilled by the quick read.
But I wanted more.
Had I not gotten a few clues at the start, I might not have guessed that Caitlin was a woman instead of another tough guy in drag. While reading, I wondered what she wore. I wondered how she might feel as she waited for her sometimes antagonistic lover to come to bed. I wondered how she felt about the extremely masculine Texas Rangers. The facts that she grew up a tomboy and liked guns doesn’t answer enough for me. Maybe those answers are in Land’s earlier novels.
And here is her lover, Cort Wesley: “There was the sense of the assault rifle vibrating slightly as it clacked off rounds, warm against his hands, steady in his grasp. The sight of the muzzle flash, strange metallic smell of air baked by the heat of the expended shells, and his own kinetic energy.” I liked the feel of that description. I could even smell it. But I know little more about Cort than this violent proficiency.
Except for the incident concerning federally owned water in Texas, Jon Land has done his homework about Texas geography and gets distance and logistics right as his heroes and villains zip around. But I longed for a greater sense of Texas. As Elmore Leonard has cautioned, a writer shouldn’t spend time writing about the weather. But I would like to know and feel the season, the humidity, the dryness, and the sweat. I’d like to smell the palm reader’s shop on East Commerce in San Antonio where a henchman goes to get his future told. I’d would like to sense more than locale.
In essence, bound by formula, setting and character serve plot. On his webpage Land mentions films as examples of thrillers. But the films that he mentions had moving actors whose faces and squints showed thoughts and emotions. Sprinting through a plot with tough-guy dialogue doesn’t give a writer a chance to rest and show us some characters.
Of course, popular fiction promises a fast, thrilling ride full of sizzle and boom. But when you put down the book and your stomach settles, you get hungry.
Jim Sanderson has published seven novels—literary, historical, and mystery. Brash Books will republish El Camino del Rio and La Mordida. He is currently the Chair of the Department of English and Modern Language at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas.