Next up in the MWA Edgar Awards category of Best First Novel is Jordan Harper’s novel She Rides Shotgun. It’s a mesmerizing, nail-biting, fast-paced and tightly plotted tale of good vs. evil with an unusual protagonist – an 11-year old, teddy-bear toting girl with ice-blue eyes and a talent for violence.
Polly McClusky’s dad, Nate McClusky, has been sentenced to death. Not by the judicial system – although he is a felon – but by the leader of Aryan Steel, a gang of white supremacists. It’s a particularly vicious sentence, because it dooms not only Nate, but ex-wife Avis and their daughter. Nate comes home to warn them, but he’s too late – Avis and her new boyfriend are dead. He scoops a wary Polly up from the sidewalk in front of her school, and they begin a deadly cat-and-mouse game with one objective: lift the “green light” and save Polly’s life. Tracking them both: Detective John Park.
Nate’s initial plan is to get Polly to a relative’s home, where she’ll be safe. On the way, he passes on the life skills taught to him by his partner in crime and dead older brother, Nick. Skills like how to take a punch. When to run. How to fight dirty. Where to stab. How to use your skinny arms to make a grown man lose consciousness. Most importantly, how to keep going when doing so is impossible, but the alternative is death.
It’s no surprise to learn in She Rides Shotgun that no place is safe and that friends can betray you, but also that there can be unexpected allies. The story is primarily Polly’s, and Harper does an amazing job of letting you inside Polly’s head, to see the confusion and sadness, but also the hard core of steel and the fierce loyalty there. Nate has been pretty much absent from Polly’s life, but is redeemed by the journey and his quest to save her, overcoming his own misjudgment through sheer will. Det. Park is wily, but one step behind.
I think you are getting the point that She Rides Shotgun gets an enthusiastic thumbs up from me. How does it compare to Tornado Weather, the first book reviewed in this category? Tornado Weather is an interesting, insightful, and thoroughly readable book. But She Rides Shotgun is a compulsive, propulsive read, with out-there-but-believable characters that you care about. No competition: She Rides Shotgun takes top spot.
Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best First Novel