Book Review: Breaker by Richard Thomas

“Readers are advised to get this book in their hands as soon as possible, as this may well be the best neo-noir of the year.”

breakerRay Nelson punches his demons in the ring, taking in all the pain that comes his way. Underground fight clubs where the stakes are high and death on mat comes with the territory. This is his penance, for his sins are legion. Fifteen-year-old Natalie has seen the white van around town, and knows what happens when the sicko who drives that van comes knocking. The man in the van is their greatest fear, a fear that is intimate and relentless. The pain they feel is real. Systematic abuse of all flavors, as well as some new dishes not on the main menu. Apart, they will die, forgotten in an uncaring world, remembered as victims for only but a second. Together, they are strong, and though the danger has never been so close, they know their enemy well, and face the mirror together to rise triumphant.

With Breaker, the sophomore effort from Neo-noir author Richard Thomas, the return to the Chicago landscape he first explored in Disintegration (Random House Alibi, 2015) is welcoming, but no less dangerous. As much as Chicago is the star of his Windy City series, this time his characters take center stage with a savage tale that cuts very close to the bone. No stranger to pummeling his characters with more pain and suffering than any normal person could handle, Thomas decides to focus his attention on abuse in all its guises, and what results is one of the most terrifying, harrowing stories you’ll read all year.

This is Neo-Noir done right, and what makes Breaker even better is it’s something you would expect to read in a newspaper, or see an award-winning documentary about. Real life truth is often stranger than fiction. At times, Breaker is over-the-top, almost unbelievable, but if you step away from the pages and scan the current news stories around the world, it is quite refreshing to realize that these events are not true.

Thomas is never shy about throwing his influences around, and Breaker is no exception. Faint undertones of Raging Bull, Leon: The Professional, even Fight Club, permeate the prose, but just enough to recognize the homage. Breaker is very much its own story, culled from an organic intimacy with the characters and their need for closure. Shifting viewpoints from Ray’s first-person account allow for glimpses into his past, and Natalie’s third-person perspective propels the story forward, all a welcome change to the narrative in a genre already over-populated with first-person beat downs.

Ray can’t help to live in the past. Everywhere he turns is a constant reminder of the abuse that has consumed much of his life. Visits by his sister only complicate the situation, their relationship pushed to limit by Ray’s need to take care of her no matter how badly she kicks him to the curb. To conquer his demons, Ray must face his future just like he faces his opponents in the ring. Fueled by anger, he is a sleeping giant awoken by the need to survive. Thankfully, Thomas injects some much needed realism in the story, forcing Ray into fearful situations, and then having him behave as normal people would, usually with disastrous results. As bad a person as Ray is, there is much good in him, and that good finally wins over. Ray is the noir character we love so much; the man who does good simply because he doesn’t have any other choice, it’s the right thing to do.

Natalie fears her future. Alone, lonely, with absentee parents who barely acknowledge her existence, Natalie is at breaking point. Her friend Melanie was taken by the man in the van, and now she’s next. She’s seen what Ray is capable of, and much like Mathilda in Leon: The Professional, Natalie needs someone like Ray to protect her, and to teach her how to protect herself. Ray reluctantly begins giving her lessons in basic protection, even going so far as giving her weapons to help if she finds herself in a dangerous situation.

Both Ray and Natalie need each other so badly that it’s often difficult to see who is protecting who. Ray provides the muscle, while Natalie’s quick thinking helps Ray out more than he realizes when the police come down on him as the plot goes from a steady simmer to a full rolling boil. The story starts off quick, and rarely let’s you down for a breather. As Thomas navigates through Ray’s backstory, we feel the abuse he’s suffered without the usual spoon-feeding you see so often, and it’s this careful, subtle narrative that puts Breaker ahead of the pack in Neo-Noir thrillers. Not everything is black and white, right or wrong. For most of us, life is hazy grey, and this is what Breaker is all about, that fringe between the light and dark, where reality is but a dream and our nightmares come true.

With a solid mix of heartbreak and action, along with some plot-defying acrobatics not seen on the page too often, Breaker delivers the goods on all fronts, and is definitely the best effort we’ve seen from Richard Thomas yet. Readers are advised to get this book in their hands as soon as possible, as this may well be the best neo-noir of the year.


Publisher: Random House Alibi
eBook (218pp)
Release date: 5 January 2016

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