Forget that girl with the tattoo. Kick (aka, Kit, aka, Kathleen) Lannigan is a girl with serious weaponry. "Kick pulled open her red purse and showed
the army fixed-blade survival knife, the recon tactical camo knife, a three-pack of throwing knives, the Leatherman, her lipstick pepper spray, a pouch of throwing stars, the handcuffs, and a pen with a steel tip that could be used as an emergency window breaker." And that's just for starters.
If you like complex protagonists you absolutely must meet Kick. But be forewarned, she is given to fits of out-of-the-blue behavior that can inflict cognitive whiplash. The young woman is very deep and very threatening threatening to become my favorite fictional character, that is. She is as cool and hard as the cold, black finish on her Glock 37. She is Mensa smart and, at a mere 21, she is more world-savvy than most fifty-year-olds. She dotes on Monster, her geriatric canine, and worries over her brother James and his apparent agoraphobia. She trusts no one, least of all Paula, her mother.
There's much more, but I don't want to spoil your fun. And by fun I mean the fun of getting to know Kick, and deciphering or trying to decipher how her psyche works. Because her life, so far, has not been an easy one and it is about to get a whole lot more interesting. Especially after mysterious stranger John Bishop appears out of the blue, then whisks Kick off in a private jet, intent on enlisting her help to rescue a couple of recently kidnapped children. Children whose stories Kick has been following with obsessive interest.
You see, when Kick was six she, too, was kidnapped. Mel, a child pornographer and pedophile gave her a new name, Beth, and forced her to perform in kiddie porn movies. Five years later she was rescued. It was an accident though, collateral windfall in an FBI raid on her captor, because everybody thought she was dead. But Kick survived for two reasons. One, she was lucrative "box office." Her films were and are, in the present time of the novel wildly popular with Internet perverts. And second because she behaved exactly as she was told, every day in every way, even though, between films, she was kept locked in a dark boxlike room. Alone with a bucket for waste, a bare mattress and little else, she learned independent thought the hard way: by keeping her thoughts to herself and being outwardly compliant.
Like Kick, Chelsea Cain apparently doesn't believe in coddling. The novel begins with a prologue describing Kick's rescue that raised the hairs on the back of my neck - it was like a wet towel snapped upon my interest. I needed to know what becomes of this eleven-year-old, a child hyper-skilled at self-protection. I had to keep turning pages.
In chapter one it's ten years later and Kick has taken those hard-learned survival skills to PhD-worthy levels. She is proficient with just about every hand weapon imaginable. Shaped not just by the abduction, by the imprisonment, by the unspeakable acts she was forced to perform, she has also been molded by the huge media event of her rescue and by her mother who has monetized being the mother of a survivor of child pornography.
The backstory that Cain has constructed is a novel unto itself. An added bonus is the complex relationship between Kick and Bishop and ultimately with Mel, who is in the prison infirmary with terminal liver disease. Faced with visiting Mel on the tenth anniversary of his arrest (her rescue), "Kick got into the car wordlessly and buckled her seatbelt with the kind of cautious attentiveness more often seen in electric-chair technicians."
Finally the frosting on the cake is the pursuit of the man behind not just the kidnapping of the two currently missing children but, perhaps, dozens of others over a decades-long career. Cain drops a hint of danger into each page, like an elusive pinprick of light visible only in one's peripheral vision. But it is there, growing bigger and eventually enlightening the whole room. This is the kind of elegant dripping water torture of a thriller that fans thrive on. We are masochists for being driven to the brink by a skillful writer. And Cain is a black belt at it.
I turned pages with one hand. Bit the nails on the other. One Kick appears to be the first of a new series. I only hope I can regrow my fingernails before the next one comes out.
This review was originally published in September 2014, and has been updated for the May 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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