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Jacqui L'Ange

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

King of Heartstrings: Jacqui L’Ange Reviews Gareth Crocker’s King

KingKing
Gareth Crocker (Penguin)
****
Book thrill

Gareth Crocker is all heart. His publishers like to bundle him together with our nation’s crime novelists, but Crocker’s books are more like emotional thrillers. He’s not interested in a high body count. Instead, he makes you care deeply about his characters, raises the emotional stakes into the stratosphere and plays cats cradle with your heartstrings.

Crocker is Joburg born and bred, but his books are based wherever they need to be (Los Angeles, Detroit, Vietnam, colonial Bechuanaland…) Setting is not as important to him as the action and the characters that drive it – and, quite frankly, he strings the tension so taut he could set his books in a paper bag and still have his readers hyperventilating.

Crocker’s fourth book doesn’t deviate from the basic pattern of his others: a stoic protagonist who carries wounds from a recent personal loss embarks on a mission and puts everything on the line. Crocker’s heroes always have a buddy to banter with, which ensures a good serving of snappy dialogue. And there is almost always an animal involved.

King begins with a bang in a Detroit drug den. Eli Rolene is a former police pilot who recently lost his wife to cancer. He is uncomfortably numbed by prescription painkillers. He’s quit his job with the Detroit PD and, when he can raise himself from his fug, helps out at his sister Lola’s animal shelter. Just until he gets back on his feet (or so that he never really has to).

Eli gets called in to rescue some exotic animals being illegally traded from a drug den caught in gangland crossfire. He is too late: the animals all died between the shootout and the time the smell prompted the neighbours to call it in. All except one feisty survivor, a white lion cub.

The little lion does well under Lola’s care, and when he needs a bit more space to roam than the clinic cage can provide, she brings him home and integrates him into the household. The cub begins to work his magic, bringing her autistic daughter Harper out of her shell (it is Harper who names him “King”) and even breaking through Eli’s defensive barriers so that he starts to feel the stirrings of something other than despair.

Keeping a lion in a residential neighbourhood is illegal, of course, and it’s only a matter of time until King gets too big for the situation. Things go from better to bad to worse a few times in this story. The lion will face cruel challenges and Eli will pass a point of no return. To say anything more would spoil the ride. Suffice to say it’s a tearjerker – in the best possible way.

Crocker calls his novels “part thriller, part love story”. Perhaps we should just call them deeply satisfying and be happy that he is so prolific – King is his second book in 2013, and there’s another one on the way next year. – @jaxangel

Book details

(Review originally appeared in the Sunday Times, 10 November 2013)

 

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