Tuesday, August 4, 2015

A Great Rediscovered Novel from Tom Kakonis

I confess that I approached this book with more than a little regret because it’s the last book written by Tom Kakonis that I hadn’t had a chance to read yet and I hated the thought that I might not ever have another of his books to come to fresh for the first time.

I first discovered Kakonis in the late 1980s when I read an excellent review of his first book, Michigan Roll, featuring a professional gambler named Timothy Waverly, who described himself as an “Applied Probabilities Analyst.” I immediately went looking for the book and absolutely loved it. Two more Waverly novels followed along with a stand-alone titled Criss Cross. They were all very good books, somewhat reminiscent of Elmore Leonard with very quirky characters and great dialogue. And then, as quickly as Kakonis had crossed my radar, he vanished, and after finishing the third Waverly novel, I was never able to find another book by him.

Which made absolutely no sense at all. All of the books were great reads; the Waverly novels in particular received a great deal of critical acclaim. But as anyone with any experience in these matters can tell you, publishing can be a very strange business. Only years later did I discover that, critical acclaim or not, Mr. Kakonis’s publisher was apparently not happy with the sales numbers for the first four books he had written. Accordingly, the publisher insisted that if Kakonis wanted to continue his career, he would have to change his name.

Kakonis agreed and wrote two additional suspense novels,Flawless and Blind Spot, under the name Adam Barrow. But, having convinced the author to make this sacrifice, the publisher failed to promote the books with any energy whatsoever and no one, myself included, ever made the connection between “Adam Barrow” and one of my favorite authors.

Fast forward to the present day when a new imprint, Brash Books, stepped up to the plate and published great new editions of all three of the Timothy Waverly novels as well as Criss Cross, along with a brand new Kakonis novel called Treasure Coast that the author had written years earlier but which had never been published. Brash Books has also now republished the two Adam Barrow novels, deleting “Barrow’s” author credit and restoring the books to the name of Tom Kakonis. Flawless was released last February and Blind Spot is officially available starting today. 

The book’s protagonist is a Chicago-area college professor named Marshall Quinn. On a hot and humid summer day, Quinn and his wife, Lori, take their young son, Jeff, on a family outing to the Adler Planetarium. To cap the day’s activities, while Lori wanders through some other exhibits, Marshall takes their son to see a film about the galaxy that is geared to small children. Finally off his feet and out of the heat, Quinn settles into the nice comfortable theater chair and falls asleep in the middle of the film. When he wakens at the end of the film, his son is gone.

Like any frantic parent, Quinn runs through the theater and the surrounding area, calling Jeff’s name but getting no response. He alerts the Planetarium staff who assure him that this sort of thing happens all the time—the boy doubtless just wandered off and they’ll find him in a jiffy.

Well, of course, they don’t. The police step in but are unable to find any trace of Jeff. There are no ransom demands and no leads whatsoever; it’s as if the boy has simply fallen off the face of the earth. The police insist that they are doing everything they can, but under the circumstances there isn’t much that they can do and the Quinns rapidly become frustrated with the police effort.

In the wake of the loss of their child, Lori Quinn is virtually unable to function. Her husband, who has lost all confidence in the police, takes matters into his own hands. He prints up brochures appealing for help and maps out a plan for blanketing the city with them. He tapes a poster-sized photo of Jeff to the window of the family Volvo with a tag asking if anyone has seen the boy.

And then one day, while the Quinns are stuck in a traffic jam at an expressway toll booth, a female passenger in a car in the next lane sees the photo and turns her head in shock. Marshall sees her mouth the words, “I know that kid.”

At that moment, the traffic in the adjoining lane clears and the woman’s car is gone. The Quinns are still stuck and by the time they get through the toll booth and break free of the congestion, the other car and the woman have disappeared. Marshall Quinn is left with only two letters from the license plate and an already-fading mental image of a bumper sticker on the back of the car. The police insist that there’s nothing they can do with so little information and so Marshall Quinn is left to mount his own hunt for the car—and the woman—without even knowing whether the woman might simply have been taunting him.

It’s a thoroughly gripping story. Kakonis takes what must surely be every parent’s worst nightmare and turns it into a taut suspense novel, sending his protagonist out on a seemingly impossible quest. There are some very bad people lurking around the edges of this drama and a somewhat timid college professor with very little “real world” experience would not appear to be the most logical person to send up against them. But Kakonis does it nonetheless. Very early on he drags the readers to the edge of their seats and pins them there until the final page, although no reader is going to be complaining about that. Fans of Kakonis’s earlier work will be very happy to finally have the chance to read this book; we’ve waited long enough.

Four stars for Blind Spot; five stars for the career of an excellent writer who should have had the chance to tell a lot more stories.