Going against power and coming out alive in ‘Complicated Shadows’
Sequels can easily be a miss more often than a hit, but Complicated Shadows, the novel succeeding Midnight Lullaby by James D.F. Hannah, does a pretty good job at continuing a fun yet exciting story about Henry Malone, a former state trooper with a gimp leg and a snarky attitude. That and crime still don’t go together, but he managed to get himself in another mess that do just that.
Those who haven’t read Midnight Lullaby should. I wrote a review about it here. We’re with a former state trooper who is bitter about many things, but even his sour soul has a soft spot. And, despite his lack of interest in trouble, he finds himself in a lot of it.
He does it again when a friend asks for help in Complicated Shadows. This is another dive into the drug world, but this time, not even the police want in on it. Henry Malone tries to help find a missing person despite everything that tells him to avoid the whole mess. He digs himself into a hole deeper than even his friend Woody can handle. In fact, Malone is forced to take on a different partner entirely this time.
All my reviews revolve around what stood out in the story, however, so I’ll quit with the beginnings to spoilers. I also try to incorporate a little bit of a writing “lesson” because this is, after all, a writing blog.
Grammar, syntax, dialogue, etc.
I’ll get this one over with because I was warned about this beforehand, as I was with the first book, and the problem will be fixed in the third. The grammatical errors in this story include missing commas and punctuation—things like that—more than misspellings, which would render a story un-readable to me, completely.
When someone quotes a mutual friend, and both are able to identify who said it, that’s proof that someone has a distinct voice. In writing, distinct dialogue is harder to accomplish but necessary to build a character and make them their own. A lot of the characters have a similar voice in this series, meaning I wouldn’t be able to listen to dialogue being read aloud and tell you who said what, but in Complicated Shadows, I found a little more uniqueness in the characters’ dialect despite the similar speech patterns. It was a step up from Midnight Lullaby. Even Henry’s friend, Woody, has started to sound more like the wise-yet-crazy old man that he is.
Themes: incorporation of controversy
James D.F. Hannah definitely wishes to address controversial issues in his stories, and he puts Henry at the center of particular beliefs. It’s easy to follow what is deemed the wrong opinion in this regard. As a result, it seems to produce extremes of either thought from both the good guys and the bad guys.
Using themes in stories is awesome, and I love being able to discover one when I get into a book. It was obvious here when homosexual characters were introduced because the characters’ opinions were addressed as necessary. For the most part, it fit the story well enough, being that three of the new and prominent characters were homosexual. It’s more of an addressed topic than a theme, but when either is introduced, it’s great to have a reason behind it, which there was. What’s better is when the theme or topic isn’t pushed unnecessarily. Once the reader feels nagged or pressed to realize or see a topic or theme—they feel like the writer was screaming at them to learn a lesson or feel an emotion or, in this case, address an issue—the story loses its impact. The book becomes a parent to a kid who just wants to listen to a story. They don’t want to have to learn something afterward.
I can’t say whether I thought the story’s topic was pushed or not to an extent that it frustrated me because the topic was one of the main pieces of the story; it was necessary to address. Using that thought while writing can help someone figure out how much is too much, and in this case, I’m on the fence so to speak.
Character development: Henry’s marriage vs. personal growth
In Midnight Lullaby, Henry’s marriage wasn’t an immediate concern; neither was his life. He didn’t care enough about it to get a job, and he didn’t care too much about his sponsor and friend, Woody. He wanted to lay around and drown in his sorrows. Well, all of that has a stronger role in Complicated Shadows.
Henry’s wife has been wanting a divorce, but now she’s practically demanding it. Lawyers are calling and she’s resending papers. In the meantime, Henry has a job as a security guy, and his friendship with Woody has become more of a friendship and less of a forced acquaintanceship because Woody is, after all, his sponsor for his alcoholism. Oh, and he’s going to physical therapy for his bad leg. Huge deal for someone like Henry.
Henry has to face the fact that he isn’t moving forward in life, and these things are brought to the forefront while he’s also trying to save a man’s life and keep his heart beating at the same time.
Like many good books, it’s the unknown that keeps one interesting, and this one makes Henry’s social life an important part of the story while also including that danger and hilarious big mouth that made the first one great.
Character development in this case started in the present, but now we’re starting to face the past. It’s actually quite fantastic to me because it shows that there are many ways to address a character’s development. Sure, the past always carries weight, but in Midnight Lullaby, flashbacks weren’t essential, nor was the reader’s knowledge of the past. While I loved that, I equally loved that, now, Henry’s complicated past is relevant, and life is happening around him whether he likes it or not. The real world hasn’t left, and neither has his past, and it’s used in a way that blends incredibly well with the story.
The McCoy family (spoiler?)
There are drugs involved—marijuana in fact—and the McCoy family is at the heart of some of it. If that’s a spoiler, whoops. If not, I’ll continue. The McCoys are an aggressive bunch, and while I didn’t like the stereotypes addressed to them, it’s also unfair to say that people like the McCoys don’t exist. They do.
Now, the McCoys are better bad guys to me than the villains in the first book because they depend on their family and their trade. This is a dangerous combination, and the main man here, Tennis McCoy, is not someone who should be messed with regarding these two priorities. What makes these characters great is that they stand alone. Everyone knows about them, but no one acts like they’re there. They don’t want to. They’re dangerous to be around. And, when a ten-year-old has a shotgun, you know that, too.
The McCoys give the plot a firm kick forward by showing the reader how powerful a group can be based on the bond they have. Not only that, but their dealings with drugs allow them to be an entity of their own that fuels an investigation while also keeping even the FBI wary of how they go about working with or against the McCoys.
I loved entering their little world for a bit to see how tight-knit they are and how controlling that is. But, then Grandma McCoy appears, and you realize that even in darkness and discrimination, there’s a little bit of light. She’s not any sort of sweet woman, but compared to the rest of them, she’s a gem. And, she has a bit more of her own voice than any of the other McCoys.
The funny thing about secondary and tertiary characters is that they carry a lot of weight in the story sometimes. The McCoys are just a plot element, yet they drive the story with their past and present, as well as their hopes for the future. Even the tertiary family members like Grandma McCoy had me grinning as I read, and that’s a great thing here; the characters’ back stories all exist, and as a reader, I don’t need to know them in full to know they’re there without a doubt.
What I liked: Woody as a caring yet grumpy figure to help Henry in his journey to better himself, the inclusion of Henry’s personal problems, the entire Tennis McCoy family (especially Grandma McCoy), the dirty sock in Jed McCoy’s mouth, realization that physical therapy is working though Henry hates to admit it
What I didn’t like: Blended character dialogue, similar missing person vs. drugs problem (good for this book but might not be for a third time), the FBI agent’s easy compliance, the lack of understanding in the ending
I can give up closure, but the ending was vague enough that I wasn’t sure whether I was being given the answer. Things were muddled enough that it could have been unknown completely or discovered in some way, but there seemed to have been a few educated guesses that left me without an answer (which is fine) but also without knowing the weight of the educated guesses (less fine). This might sound confusing, but a story ends either with answers or intended lingering questions. The characters guessed in the end, and it left me, as a reader, unsure of whether I was meant to believe the guesses and take them as truths.
Despite these things, the story is still great and the characters are greater. I want to follow Henry and Woody on their next journey. I just hope it’s not another drug thing. If it is, Hannah did a good job of writing a story with different characters who made the plot unique in its own light. I’ll be open to the story the same way; I just simply hope I don’t have to be. I used to have a half-point system with my reviews, but I stopped doing that. This would have been a 3.5 instead of a three, but as it goes…