Scott Sigler – Nocturnal

Homicide detective Bryan Clauser is losing his mind.

How else to explain the dreams he keeps having—dreams that mirror, with impossible accuracy, the gruesome serial murders taking place all over San Francisco? How else to explain the feelings these dreams provoke in him—not disgust, not horror, but excitement.

As Bryan and his longtime partner, Lawrence “Pookie” Chang, investigate the murders, they learn that things are even stranger than they at first seem. For the victims are all enemies of a seemingly ordinary young boy—a boy who is gripped by the same dreams that haunt Bryan.  Meanwhile, a shadowy vigilante, seemingly armed with superhuman powers, is out there killing the killers.  And Bryan and Pookie’s superiors—from the mayor on down—seem strangely eager to keep the detectives from discovering the truth.

Doubting his own sanity and stripped of his badge, Bryan begins to suspect that he’s stumbled into the crosshairs of a shadow war that has gripped his city for more than a century—a war waged by a race of killers living in San Francisco’s unknown, underground ruins, emerging at night to feed on those who will not be missed.

And as Bryan learns the truth about his own intimate connections to the killings, he discovers that those who matter most to him are in mortal danger…and that he may be the only man gifted—or cursed—with the power to do battle with the nocturnals.

I know that’s a particularly long blurb, but it’s taken from the book jacket and I think it gives a good impression what the book is about. In fact when I read the blurb, I couldn’t wait to review this book. Urban fantasy with SFPD homicide detectives? A supernatural police procedural? How could I resist? Add to that all the high praise I’ve heard for Sigler’s writing in the blogosphere and on the podcasts I listen to and Nocturnal seemed the perfect book to acquaint myself with Sigler’s writing. And I have to say, Sigler lived up to expectations. Nocturnal was a page-turner from page one and had me riveted to the story till its explosive end.

The main idea for the story – a race of underground killers, who are more than human and have some interesting physical aberrations, and the cops who discover them – is a great one and I really enjoyed Sigler’s execution. The development of the narrative was well-balanced and well-paced, as the reader given clues throughout, but Sigler still manages to surprise her with the way these clues come together. The pacing is fast, very fast, but not so fast as to miss out on details. But once this story gets rolling, which it does pretty much for the get-go, it doesn’t stop. Even in the down-time scenes, when the main characters are either resting or brainstorming the case, where the physical action stops and lets the reader take a breather, it’s still important for the reader to pay close attention, because important information, clues and background on the characters is given at such times. While the book is set in San Francisco and there are certain elements in the narrative that are unique to that city, Sigler leaves the city largely undescribed. At least, I don’t really have a sense of what the city was like other than big, hilly, it’s got the Golden Gate Bridge and there are a Chinese and an Italian quarter. The rest of the visuals were filled in by what I’ve seen of the city on TV, but not in any great detail. What was described in detail and was incredibly visual for me was Home, the place where the killers live. It was faintly reminiscent of the lair in the Beauty and the Beast TV show, which I remember watching when I was little, although this is the nightmare version of that lair. Small, cramped, dirty, dangerous and filled with monstrous killers, Sigler’s description of Home evoked a claustrophobic and eerie feeling. The final battle set in Home and the ending of the book were great and I literally didn’t want to put the book down for the last fifty pages.

The characters in Nocturnal are fabulous. Our protagonists are easy to care for and some of the things they go through are heartbreaking, to the point that I was telling the book it had better not go there, even if I knew it would. The central characters are Bryan Clauser and Pookie Chang, two SF homicide inspectors, who’ve been partners for about six years. I loved this pair. They are your typical cop buddy duo (if that wasn’t a term, it is now), but the banter and smart-ass humour that gets passed between these two, as well as the genuine friendship between the two, set them apart. I especially liked Pookie’s irrepressible nature and he was my favourite in the book. They’re supported by medical examiner Robin Hudson, Bryan’s ex-girlfriend, and Pookie’s erstwhile partner and current departmental computer wizard, John Smith. I liked that while these two are Bryan’s and Pookie’s support team, they definitely have story development of their own, with John’s story arc being the stronger and more satisfying of the two. The bad guys were bad guys, but not in a black-and-white moral compass way. Some of these characters were genuinely scary, especially Rex. At the start Rex is a character the reader feels compassion for: a half-orphaned boy, left with an abusive mother, sexually abused by their former priest, bullied at school, it is hard not to pity Rex. But during Nocturnal, Rex slowly changes and at first it’s still understandable, who wouldn’t go slightly crazy with all the terrible stuff Rex has to deal with on a daily basis, but the further along in the book we get, the more disturbing Rex’s transformation becomes. In the end, Rex is no longer a figure to be pitied; he is a figure to be feared and despised. In a similar way, Hillary and Firstborn, two of the underground killers, are frightening, but when we learn their motivations for their actions and decisions, they might not become likeable, but there is a certain kind of respect created for them. They aren’t mindless killers and within their reality and society they are almost justified in their actions.

Sigler’s writing style is another contributing factor to my enjoyment of this novel. His prose is pithy, with short chapters – making the just one-more-chapter thing nigh on impossible to break free from – and great dialogue. There is a lot of humour in this book and most of it is in the dialogue, particularly any scene with Pookie in it. While I loved this dialogue-heavy style and Pookie’s smart mouth, I can also see where this might annoy other readers, so if you dislike a lot of dialogue or smart-assery, Nocturnal might not be the best fit for you. The novel also felt well-researched, from the police and medical examiner procedures to the genetic science bits, they all felt real and correct. I especially loved the historical nugget of the buried ships. I didn’t know this and I loved the way Sigler incorporated these into his novel.

Nocturnal was an awesome read for me. I was captivated by the book from the start and while the ending was very satisfying and I raced through those last pages to get there, at the same time I’m disappointed I finished the book and I won’t get to spend more time with Bryan and Pookie. If you like your urban fantasy thriller-styled or you’re a crime reader who’d like to branch-out into a bit more of a fantasy setting, Nocturnal might be a good choice. But genre classifications aside, if you like a great story, filled with action and mystery, you just shouldn’t miss Nocturnal, as it’s a thrilling ride through and under San Francisco’s streets, that will leave you breathless and wanting more.

This book was sent to me for review by the publisher.


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