“The Second Life of Nick Mason” by Steve Hamilton

The Second Life of Nick MasonSteve Hamilton has been one of my favorite authors for many years now, thanks to his Alex McKnight series (about a Detroit cop-turned-Upper Peninsula P.I.) and stand-alones like his Edgar-winning The Lock Artist. As one of only two authors to have won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel and Best Novel, Hamilton can hardly be called unappreciated. But he has never been a household name on par with other acclaimed mystery/thriller authors like Harlan Coben, Michael Connelly or Lee Child.

When The Second Life of Nick Mason came out last week, it was greeted by a chorus of rave reviews, making it clear that Hamilton is now playing in the big leagues. (Not to mention the fact that all three authors I named above—Coben, Connelly and Child—blurbed the book, along with Stephen King and Don Winslow.) As a longtime fan, I have to admit I was a wee bit skeptical. “If The Second Life of Nick Mason faces any peril, it’s that of not living up to its megahype,” Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times.

For about the first quarter of the book, my skepticism didn’t wane. Mason is an all-out antihero, the sort of literary figure I’ve grown weary of in recent years. Released from prison by a powerful fixer, Mason is back on the streets of his hometown, Chicago, but he is by no means a free man. He is given a cell phone, and when it rings, no matter where he is or what he’s doing, he must answer—and do whatever he’s told. If his instructions are to kill a guy, that’s what he has to do, unless he wants to wind up back in prison, or dead himself.

Why would anybody agree to such a bargain? A career criminal who had tried to live a straight life after marrying and having a child, Mason was talked into doing the proverbial last big job for the promise of a huge, life-changing score. But that score changed his life in all the worst ways, sending him to prison and resulting in a divorce from his beloved wife and a seemingly permanent separation from his now-nine-year-old daughter. Mason wants to see his girl grow up, even if it means watching her surreptitiously while she plays soccer (her new stepdad’s the team coach).

As the book went on, though, I’ll admit I became hooked, and finished it a lot faster than I’d meant to. (It’s hard to sit back and savor a thriller when you can’t stop turning the pages to find out what will happen next.) Mason isn’t as sympathetic a character as McKnight, but he does have a moral code and by the end of the book, it’s impossible not to have some admiration for him, even if you don’t necessarily agree with all of his actions.

Best of all, when I reached the end, I didn’t have that sugar-rush hangover I feel when I finish a lot of thrillers—the feeling that you’ve just read a book that’s the literary equivalent of eating an entire package of Oreos in one sitting. Hamilton’s writerly palette includes a lot of shades of gray, not just black & white, and of course, he’s an extremely fine writer. But if newbies find their way to Nick Mason, I hope they’ll dive into his back catalog; his previous works may not have gotten as much attention as this book, but he’s been deserving of this level of success for a long, long time now.

“Alligator Candy” by David Kushner

Alligator CandyThe “free-range kids” movement seeks to give children the same sort of carefree childhoods their parents enjoyed growing up in the 1970s, those mythical days when moms would push their youngsters out the door on a sunny weekend or summer morning, allowing them to roam the neighborhood at will until dusk. The fact that the movement is so controversial (the woman who coined the term has been vilified in the media as “America’s worst mom”) demonstrates how far we have come; today, it’s considered completely normal to forbid children from playing alone outside even in the most secluded suburban cul-de-sac unless they’re constantly under an adult’s watchful eye.

In his powerful and affecting memoir, Alligator Candy, David Kushner takes us back to the era when children were “unbuckled and unrestrained, free from seat belts or helmets or meticulously organized playdates… When we had a stretch of hours to play, they let us put the free in free time, wandering off to learn and explore and find adventures. They shared our innocence. They hadn’t learned to be afraid.”

This book is about the day David’s family, and by extension his neighbors and city (Tampa, FL) learned to be afraid. On a Sunday in October 1973, David’s older brother Jonathan pedaled away from their home on his red bicycle, headed for the nearby 7-Eleven, located across the woods (“a thicket of freedom, a mossy maze of cypress and palms begging to be explored”). He had promised to return with a package of David’s favorite Snappy Gator gum, which came packaged in a toy alligator head. Jon never returned; after a weeklong search, his body was discovered in a shallow grave.

It later emerged that Jon had been abducted and murdered, but since David was just four at the time of his 11-year-old brother’s death, he knew very little about the details of the crime. He only knew Jon was gone forever. Much later in life, Kushner, now an award-winning journalist, decides to conduct a thorough investigation of Jon’s short life and brutal death. He interviews friends and family members; he reads the police reports, court documents and newspaper coverage.

He also documents his struggles with raising his own children. “The culture had changed,” he writes. “CNN broadcast news stories of missing kids. We heard about Amber Alerts, followed drawn-out abduction stories on Nancy Grace… at what point does fear subsume mindfulness? Parents, drunk on the fear, began hovering over their kids… Kids were more likely to die from an accident inside the house than get murdered by a kidnapper. But the reality of statistics didn’t matter.”

Alligator Candy is part true-crime story, part meditation on grief and loss, and a book that will no doubt prove to be tremendously valuable to families going through the sort of suffering the Kushner family endured. It can be a tough read due to the subject matter, but it’s beautifully written, and David has certainly fulfilled what he set out to do with this book: “I wanted to be the memory harvester,” he writes. “I wanted to learn and tell the story, the whole story of everything. I wanted to bring Jon back to life.”

“The Watcher in the Wall” by Owen Laukkanen

The Watcher in the Wall coverWhen I was a teenager, I read Sidney Sheldon’s lurid novel Bloodline, which had a subplot about snuff films (movies in which a person is killed onscreen, for the purposes of sexually gratifying the viewer). This was back in the pre-Internet dark ages, so I was unable to find any additional information on whether or not snuff films were real or just a figment of Sheldon’s imagination. Not even the Ann Landers Encyclopedia, my usual go-to source for questions you didn’t dare ask an adult, mentioned them.

A few years later, I remember hearing about the Faces of Death movies, which seemed designed to appeal more to teen boys who would watch it on a dare rather than to people looking for sick sexual kicks. But aside from that, I can’t say that snuff films were ever on my pop-cultural radar screen—that is, until this year, when I’ve read two different books with plots centered around them. I am dearly hoping there won’t be a third.

Owen Laukkanen is one of my favorite thriller writers—this is the fifth book in his series about FBI agent Carla Windermere and her partner Kirk Stevens. The books provide a pure adrenaline rush, with short, action-packed chapters (the 350-page The Watcher in the Wall has 141 of them). When the series started (with 2012’s The Professionals), there was a high degree of sexual tension between married-with-kids Stevens and the young and ambitious Windermere, but in the last couple of books, that’s really been tamped down. It’s barely mentioned in the new book; we’ll see if it comes up again down the road. The series hardly needs the will-they-or-won’t-they element to provide suspense.

In Watcher, a classmate of Stevens’ teenage daughter commits suicide, and what looks like the straightforward aftermath of bullying turns out to be much more complex. The boy was involved in the underground world of online suicide message boards, and once the agents start investigating, it turns out several kids were being egged on by another participant, who instructed them precisely how to kill themselves (down to the exact type of rope for hanging) and to do it in front of a webcam. There’s a cadre of sickos eager to pay big money in order to watch people die onscreen.

Whether or not urging somebody to commit suicide is actually a crime is up for debate, but when it turns out that a couple of teens appear to be in imminent danger, Windermere and Stevens spring into action, jetting across the country to try to find the message-board baddie (who has, of course, carefully concealed his identity and location). And as they say, “this time, it’s personal”: not just because Stevens’ daughter knew one of the victims, but because it turns out Windermere still feels guilty over an old classmate who committed suicide, something she felt she could have helped prevent if she hadn’t been so worried about what the school’s bullying cool kids thought of her.

As someone who lost a close friend to suicide, I find that this topic can be upsetting for me to read about, and considering how vividly Laukkanen writes about depression, self-doubt and suicidal thoughts, it’s not terribly surprising that in the afterword, he candidly discusses his own struggles. I found The Watcher in the Wall more gut-wrenching than his last book, The Stolen Ones, which dealt with sex trafficking, because the topic does hit so close to home. But like all of Laukkanen’s books, Watcher is a non-stop thrill ride, and if you’re a fan of this genre, this series is one of the best around. No matter what he writes about, I’m all-in for book six.

“Ruthless” by Ron Miscavige

Ruthless by Ron MiscavigeBooks about Scientology seem to have become something of a cottage industry lately. There have been numerous books by defectors, both famous (Leah Remini’s Troublemaker) and non- (Marc Headley’s Blown for Good, among others), but when word got out that former church member Ron Miscavige was writing a memoir, Scientology-watchers everywhere got excited. After all, Ron Miscavige is the father of David Miscavige, the head of Scientology who has been depicted as a power-mad tyrant. No one who’s read Blown for Good will ever forget the “musical chairs” scene, in which David viciously punished executives who had fallen out of favor by making them play a children’s party game with alarmingly high stakes.

I have long been hoping for a full-fledged biography of David Miscavige, who seized control of the church from founder L. Ron Hubbard upon Hubbard’s death in 1986, but after reading Ruthless, I feel that this is probably as close as we’re ever going to get. Ron Miscavige describes young David as “an affectionate, happy, bright kid,” albeit one who suffered from serious asthma attacks. It was David’s health problems that first convinced Ron to try to cure his son with Scientology. Ron had witnessed the power of Scientology firsthand when a friend who was a fan of Hubbard’s teachings told him how he could cure his headaches: “the way you get rid of it is look at yourself in the mirror and give the headache to the person in the mirror.” “Lo and behold,” writes Ron, “my headache went away!” Convinced, Ron got deeper and deeper into Hubbard’s philosophies, and when young David’s asthma disappeared following a 45-minute session, the Miscavige family became gung-ho Scientologists.

David ultimately wound up dropping out of high school to work for Scientology full-time. In 1980, according to Ron, David’s asthma returned, and during a hospital visit, his son “had a major realization about power. ‘Power,’ he said, ‘is not granted. It is assumed.’… That insight became his operating motto.” After Hubbard died, David managed to outmaneuver Pat and Annie Broeker, the couple many believe Hubbard had hand-picked to lead the church after his demise. He also pushed Hubbard’s widow Mary Sue out of the picture. At the ripe old age of 26, David was firmly in charge.

Divorced from his first wife, Ron remarried, and he and his second wife moved onto the so-called “Gold Base” in Hemet, CA, where David reigned supreme. No one stayed in David’s good graces for long, even his own father or his wife, Shelly. Ron paints a vivid portrait of the difficult life of a Sea Org member, working absurdly long hours and being forced to subsist on beans and rice while David dined on gourmet meals, “New Zealand lamb or Maine lobster… Two entrees were prepared for each meal, in case one was not to his liking.”

When Ron and his wife Becky decided to leave Gold Base, it required a tremendous amount of advance planning and secrecy, a necessity in the “snitching culture” of Scientology (Ron compares it to the Stasi in East Germany). His escape story is a doozy. Once he got out, Ron hoped to live a quiet, normal life, but he eventually discovered that his son had paid two private eyes a small fortune ($10,000 a week) to follow him. A policeman caught one of the PIs snooping around an abandoned house; the rather inept detective had several illegal weapons stored in his car, including a homemade silencer, and once he was confronted by the cops, the PI sang like a canary. Apparently, the detectives had only had one conversation with David Miscavige (everything else was handled through intermediaries). One day, they observed Ron clutching at his chest in a supermarket parking lot and assumed he was having a heart attack (he was actually trying to keep his cell phone from falling out of his shirt pocket). The panicked PIs weren’t sure what to do, so they called their contact. Within minutes, they heard from David himself, who passed along the following message: “If he dies, he dies. Don’t intervene.” His son’s indifference and callous attitude helped persuade Ron to write Ruthless (which was originally going to be titled If He Dies, He Dies).

Today, thanks to Scientology’s “disconnection” policy, Ron is estranged from three of his four children: David and his twin Denise, and little sister Lori. Only Ronnie, who is no longer in the church, is still in touch with his dad; despite Ron’s best efforts, Denise and Lori have chosen to side with their brother. However, Ron still believes that some of Hubbard’s ideas are valid, though he acknowledges that many were cribbed from other writers and thinkers (there’s a recommended-reading list at the end of the book). He makes some suggestions for reform, including getting rid of disconnection and calling a halt to the incessant fund-raising for fancy new buildings (“ideal orgs”) that has caused many once-dedicated parishioners to leave the church.

What would Scientology look like now had David Miscavige not seized power after Hubbard’s death? Today, it’s obviously a sinking ship, despite David’s crowing about unprecedented expansion and growth. In this post-“Going Clear” era, not even the faded glamour of Tom Cruise and John Travolta can persuade Young Hollywood types to go anywhere near the church. Scientology’s downfall is being obsessively documented on blogs like Tony Ortega’s Underground Bunker and in books like this one, but as long as the church retains its tax-exempt status, it seems likely that it’ll continue to limp along for a long time to come.