A pious old woman steps out of the Sacred Heart confessional and is shot through the heart by a sniper with what at first appears to be a miraculous and impossible shot.
Colonel Tech Weaver dispatches a team from Langley to put the shooter – and anyone else who gets in the way – in a body bag before a half-century of national secrets are revealed.
But soon the sniper strikes again. And Detective Lynch, the son of a murdered Chicago cop, finds himself cast into an underworld of political corruption, as he tries to discover the truth about what’s really going on – before another innocent citizen gets killed.
Penance is one of the two inaugural titles for Angry Robot’s new crime imprint Exhibit A. Launch titles always have a little extra pressure attached as they are the first time the new publisher or imprint gets to show their sensibilities and give the reader a taste of what they can expect when they see that particular publisher’s logo on the spine of a book. As such I was looking forward to see what sort of impression Dan O’Shea’s debut novel Penance would make.
On first glance, Penance hit all the right notes: a gripping opening scene, an interesting and sympathetic main character, and we’re immediately off to the races. And while the book stays fascinating and the story becomes a gripping mixture of police procedural and conspiracy thriller, the book shows some use of language that made me rather uncomfortable. O’Shea’s villains use racial epithets which were rather unsettling and even his main characters from the Seventies timeline use a derogatory term for a gay character. I know that in the case of the Seventies it was probably true to the times and it’s probably sadly true to the current day too, but I’m not used to seeing this kind of language bandied about so freely. This isn’t to say that the book is riddled with it, it certainly isn’t, but it’s there enough. While this language didn’t take away from the plot or the character development, it did take away some of my enjoyment, because I kept getting snagged on it. I found it hard to parse the language, because I couldn’t figure out whether it was a statement on racism and homophobia or a sloppy short hand to point out the villains, in which case, why the homophobia from the Seventies cops? Or perhaps it’s neither and it is just a reflection of reality then and now. Whatever the reason, I found it disturbing.
Moving beyond the problematic language issue, Penance definitely has several things going for it. There is an interesting story structure with two separate timelines, one set in 1971 and one set in the present day. At the beginning of the book the reader is given a cast of characters, so it isn’t much of a spoiler to say that there is a Detective Lynch in both timelines. I like how the story from the Seventies complemented the present day and was very much connected to it, but that none of it was told as exposition to the younger Lynch, instead he has to investigate and figure out the story himself the hard way. Within the present day, there are two story arcs; on the one hand we have Lynch’s story and his investigation of the sniper murders, on the other there is the black ops agency, which works for the government on off-the-books assignments, that needs to contain one of their own gone rogue to protect some pretty big national security secrets. The interweaving of these three story arcs makes the narrative a curious mixture of police procedural and conspiracy/spy thriller; a blend that makes for quite an exciting read. While some of the elements of the plot are revealed early on – we know who the killer is far before we learn his motivations, for example – there remained plenty of surprises. There was a particularly big reveal at about the two-thirds point that made me go “WHAT!” out loud, which was really cool.
An interesting plot needs interesting characters and O’Shea has several in his debut. His main character John Lynch is quite cool and sympathetic. I loved his scenes with Liz Johnson, an up and coming news reporter new to Chicago, with whom he has an immediate and fierce chemistry. They do seem to be able to connect beyond just their physical attraction and they make an interesting and fun pair. Beyond that, O’Shea’s villains are almost more memorable than his hero characters. The rogue sniper Fisher, Colonel Weaver, who’s been in black ops for so long his lost touch with his conscience, Rusty Lynch, John’s somewhat morally-ambiguous uncle, and Ferguson, the operative who does have a conscience. Especially Fisher and Weaver are deeply unpleasant and several of the Chicago politicians aren’t much better. It fascinating to see the cat-and-mouse games the various factions play with each other and how O’Shea juggles all of them to land them all safely, if a bit jostled, in the end.
As noted I had a big problem with some of the language used in Penance, but the mystery was compelling and Lynch a main character I found myself rooting for along the way. If this edgy sort of crime story is what we can expect from Exhibit A in the future, we have a lot of exciting reads to look forward to. O’Shea’s debut novel has some rough edges, but shows a lot of promise and I look forward to reading more of his work in the future.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.