BEN SANDERS Exit .45. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm
When Marshall Grade agrees to meet his former NYPD colleague Ray Vialoux, he does not expect Ray to end up dead on the floor of a New York restaurant.
Exit .45 is the third Marshall Grade novel by New Zealand-based author Ben Sanders, following on from American Blood (2015) and Marshall’s Law (2017). Sanders has always dabbled in hard-boiled American-based noir fiction with a back-catalogue that totals eight books at the time of this release. His characters have been favourably compared with Jack Reacher (Lee Childs) and Jason Bourne (Robert Ludlum), and his style with that of Elmore Leonard.
Given this is the third novel in this series, new readers, particularly those who are fans of tight, dark, noir-styled works, should find no barriers to understanding the characters. This is high-action, high-octane, wise-cracking, mortality-defying thriller territory, and the backstory for any ex-NYPD lone wolf PI carrying a past littered with dodgy characters isn’t going to be hard to work out.
In Exit .45 an old colleague from his NYPD days, Ray Vialoux, gets in touch with Marshall. He’s got a problem: ‘I got in sorta deep with guys I shouldn’t have.’
How much trouble becomes apparent when a hail of gunfire comes through the windows of the restaurant where they are meeting, killing Vialoux immediately.
The barrel swung to target Vialoux as Marshall rose from his chair, and as he came upright he grabbed the table by its edge and flipped it toward the window. The tabletop was vertical as it struck the glass, the pane dropping out as a curtain of white pebbles, and then the shotgun boomed.
Quiet after that: splinters and blood exploding through the room in near-silence under the ringing in his ears. Marshall crouched and dived and caught Vialoux in a tackle chest-high, crashed him backward off his chair and onto the floor. The second shot blew out more glass and wood chips.
Turns out the guys Vialoux got in too deep with include drug dealers, mob players and bent cops, to name a few – but Vialoux’s gambling debts seem an odd motivation for killing him. Why send a hitman after the same person you’ve just insisted pay in full, cancelling all previous arrangements to clear the debt? As expected, it’s up to Marshall to sort this mess out, especially as part of his history with Vialoux and his wife Hannah makes him an easy option for prime suspect.
‘There’s something else I should mention, too. Before you find out by yourself and get all excited.’
Nevins took off his glasses and cleaned them on his tie and put them back on again. ‘All right.’
Marshall nodded at the house. ‘Hannah and I had an affair ten years ago.’
Plus there’s the extra complication of Marshall’s reputation within the NYPD, which the lead investigator on this shooting, Detective Floyd Nevins, is all too aware of.
Nevins looked past him to the traffic on the BQE. ‘He told me you blew your undercover op when you shot the target of the investigation. He said you took a quarter million dollars cash from the target’s wall safe, but the FBI couldn’t pin it on you.’
Being a potential suspect is only part of the reason for Marshall’s involvement. His affair with Hannah was a long time ago, but there’s something that’s always niggled.
She told him their marriage was ending, and she was looking for someone else. That confession doused the fantasy pretty quickly for him. He’d been looking for escape. He didn’t want to run off with a colleague’s wife in the middle of an undercover op. He told Hannah he wanted to draw a line under the arrangement, and then waited for news of her separation.
It never came.
That was then, and now, despite Hannah’s obvious interest in rekindling their attraction, Marshall is distracted elsewhere, professionally and personally.
Jordan Mora’s ex, Henry, was a private investigator who knew Vialoux. Jordan, Henry and Vialoux had history, although not for quite some time now, regardless of what Vialoux might have hinted to Hannah.
‘What sort of work did you do with him?’
‘This and that. Fraud, surveillance. To be honest, when Henry and I split, I was going to close everything down. Like I say, he was the one with the license, so I couldn’t really keep it going above-board. But then I didn’t have anything permanent at the time – other work, I mean – so Ray said I could do some cases with him. But it just got to the point, it wasn’t worth it.’
Despite that parting of the ways, Jordan is like Marshall when it comes to past loyalties, and she willingly steps in to help. She’s on board with the feeling that something about Vialoux’s death is odd, and that there’s more than a whiff of ‘who cares’ about the police investigation. It doesn’t hurt that she’s able to provide a very good lead that gives them both something to look closely at – something and someone who turns out to be a lot more dangerous than they anticipate.
Of course, readers of this entire series will need to have a high tolerance for violence, death and mayhem. It’s also noir in styling, so there are guns everywhere and lots of fast cars, dodgy dives and menacing heavies. All the standard elements of the American thriller checklist in other words, and they are delivered with precision.
There are some more unexpected elements in the characterisations, however. Sanders has produced an interesting twist with Jordan, a female partner who can hold her own when the going gets messy. Marshall may be your typical noir-style loner with a dodgy past and a seemingly endless capacity for taking and inflicting extreme violence, but here he’s slowly morphing into something more. He’s becoming a good neighbour, a jigsaw puzzler, a cat-friendly man; someone who asks an associate who has just shot somebody in the head if they are okay.
The introduction of Jordan Mora to this series, and the changes in Marshall, feel like they may be about to flip things a little bit more, staying within the classic noir stylings while adding more touches of grey to his world. It could also mean that the light’s an aberration, and it’s all heading somewhere much darker. We’ll only know once the fourth book arrives.
Ben Sanders Exit .45 Allen and Unwin 2022 PB 304pp $32.99
Karen Chisholm blogs from austcrimefiction.org, where she posts book reviews as well as author biographies.
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