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In some cases, the ability to break away from the standard review becomes crucial in order to effectively convey how outstanding a work of fiction is. In the case of Jordan Harper’s She Rides Shotgun, I’ll skip the introduction and allow the writing to do the talking:

The shank came out of nowhere. Nate grabbed the knife-wrist. His other hand grabbed Chuck’s billy-goat beard. He put his foot behind Chuck’s. He twisted his hips. He slammed Chuck onto the floor. Chuck’s skull thocked against the concrete. He followed Chuck down. He drove his knee into Chuck’s liver. He bent Chuck’s arm at the elbow. He pressed the shank point at the hollow of Chuck’s throat. Flesh dimpled at the shank’s point. One drop of blood bloomed.

That is the choreography of violence. That is noir poetry in all its deadly glory. That is economy of language used to cram a fight into a short paragraph without skipping details or leaving out any of the brutality. That, in short, is a talented author at the peak of his game delivering a fast-paced, gritty, ultraviolent narrative that, more than put him on the crime map, should rocket him into the upper echelons of contemporary noir.

In She Rides Shotgun, Nate McClusky is fresh out of jail and driving a stolen car in a hurry to pick up his eleven-year-old daughter, Polly. Nate is out in the free world, but he made some very dangerous enemies in prison, enemies that belong to Aryan Steel, a powerful white supremacist gang. There is a bounty on his head and members of Aryan Steel have already murdered his ex-wife. Nate knows Polly is next. To save her, he needs to stay alive, to keep moving, and to hurt the men looking for him in ways that will make them stop. With no help and caught between criminals and the law, Nate and Polly start an adventure full of violence, crime, tough lessons, love, and an incredible transformation, all in a quest for peace of mind, the ultimate freedom.

Polly and Nate are engaging characters on their own, but work best as a duo. Harper’s deceptively simple plot allows him to use his characters as vehicles to explore trust, loyalty, fatherhood, coping mechanisms in the face of a major loss, and even the need for violence. Polly carries around a stuffed bear that eventually becomes a character and provides some comic relief during some harrowing moments. Taking chances with elements like that is what pushes She Rides Shotgun to the top of the heap of novels that have been published during the first half of 2017, and one that will surely be on most nest of 2017 lists at the end of the year.

Besides the characters and lean, effective prose, Harper seems to possess a deep understanding of how violence works and the way it affects people. Between fighting, gunshots, blood, and even teaching Polly how to choke out opponents, there is plenty of brutality in this narrative. However, there is always heart and a very understandable reason behind it. While most of the authors in contemporary noir are concerned with being gritty and explosive, Harper pulls those off constantly without losing track of the humanity in all of his characters.

Another crucial aspect of this visceral, moving novel is that it fits perfectly with the great crime classics that precede it. This is a new book, but something in its DNA makes it feel like the next step in the genre’s natural progression. Bad guys and murder have always been around, and the next big thing in crime fiction is here:

Nate walked to the door of the Dew Drop thinking about how gunslingers die. Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickok, Jesse James. All three of those bad boys died without knowing it was coming. Wild Bill took a bullet in the head while playing cards. Jesse James took one with his face to the wall, straightening a picture. Billy the Kid died in the dark, asking who is it? to the man who murdered him. That’s how gunslingers died. Real life I didn’t give you a showdown. Real life put a bullet in the back of your head.

She Rides Shotgun is a debut novel, but that doesn’t mean Harper can’t be called a master. Calling him a “new” author isn’t exactly accurate, so master does the job pretty well. This is a novel about guns and bad guys and cops and danger, sure, but at its core, this is something much more significant: a narrative about love and sacrifice. If you like your fiction tough but with more heart than a blue whale, get your hands on this.

***

She Rides Shotgun
by Jordan Harper
Ecco; 272 p.

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