“Nothing Short of Dying” Erik Storey (Simon and Schuster) – book review

Nothing Short of DyingClyde Barr is an ex-Marine, sometime mercenary and former hunter/tracker in the African bush, camping in the Colorado wilderness after his ‘sensible’ sisters refused to meet him. He gets a phone call from his ‘wild’ sister, Jen, begging him to get her out. The call is ended by her captor before Barr can establish her location. The only glimmer of hope is that his sister is being used by her captor so Barr has a small window of chance to find her.

His first port of call is an old school friend, now married to Barr’s high school sweetheart, who reluctantly agrees to put him in touch with a local drug dealer who might shed light on Jen’s whereabouts. The local drug dealer points him in the direction of a bar nominally run by a small time dealer who likes to talk big but actually run by a barmaid, Allie, working what shifts she can to help with her mother’s medical bills. Allie’s seen Jen and offers to help Barr. The bar owner has a big brother, Alvis, who’s a bigger dealer with a slick drug operation based in the Colorado mountains. Jen had started working as a cleaner in a government owned building with a chemical store and it’s thought that’s what Alvis wants her to help gain him access to. Barr and Allie have to shake off a DEA team before they meet up with a former acquaintance of his to track down Alvis’s location.

In flashbacks, readers get Barr’s background: his alcoholic mother and succession of abusive boyfriends, one of whom helped himself to Jen. Barr and Jen relied on each other to survive the abuse, which is why he’s prepared to go to such life-threatening lengths to rescue her now. Barr’s escape was via the Marines. Jen drifted in to drugs and was trying to get clean, using her cleaning job to restart her life when her path crossed Alvis’s.

Initially he thinks Allie is just along for the ride. But learns that her life’s reached a dead end. Toughened by caring, bringing herself up and bar work, she proves a useful side-kick. Although neither of them realise that their initial rescue of a drugged Jen was perhaps a little too easy.

Betrayed by his old acquaintance, the two have to regroup, restrategise and figure out how to rescue Jen a second time. Alvis ups the ante by threatening Barr’s other sisters and families. It’s not an idle threat: Alvis has both means and motive to see it through. Can they commit and carry out a second rescue and protect Barr’s family? Barr’s prepared to put his life on the line, but will Allie see it through?

Barr’s credible: drawing on local and foreign experience, military-trained strength and it’s clear he understands the situation. His isolation makes him reluctant to ask assistance from anyone he doesn’t know. He trusts Allie when she shows she’s capable, tough and packed with resilience. His shoulders are broad enough to carry a series. Female characters aren’t sidelined or boxed into feisty/pretty roles. Allie is allowed a vulnerable side. Jen spends most of the novel out on drugs but, when she’s awake, she’s aware, lacks self-pity and doesn’t make additional demands on her brother.

Erik Storey is firmly in control of both plot and character. Background information is filtered through on a need-to-know basis and flashbacks temper the action, giving variations in pacing. Gripping fight scenes are counterpointed by some credible tenderness. Allie helps humanise Barr. He may be strong and fit but he also tires and makes mistakes. He shows he wants to be a big brother to Jen but isn’t a superhero.

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