In his absorbing thriller, HEAD GAME, the talented Tim Downs explores the power of psychological warfare, with excellent results.
Downs (PLAGUEMAKER) sets up his best novel to date by giving us a window into the Gulf War and three men who form a tightly-knit PsyOps unit. Cale Caldwell is an advertising executive whose fresh talents are put to work writing leaflets encouraging Iraqi soldiers to surrender. "The product the Army was selling was simply life: survival; continued existence; the chance to see your loved ones again; the chance to get your first decent meal in weeks…." "King" Kirby (born Alderson Dumfries) is an aspiring comic book illustrator whose talents are put to work in the PsyOps unit. Captain "Pug" Moseley is the wise Intelligence Officer who also does "market research" and is "the old warhorse" of the group.
Downs excels at intriguing the reader with his detailed account of how the trio puts together leaflets that will best appeal to Iraqi soldiers and cause them to surrender. His descriptions of the nuances of language and how a word used or deleted can affect the reader will capture fans from the opening pages. (For example, The Army changes a leaflet message from "Surrender" to "Surrender with honor" with significant results.)
But all of this is background to the story that unfolds in present-day Charlotte, North Carolina, where Caldwell, a recent widower, and his teenage daughter Hannah are caught in a downward spiral of unfortunate events. Caldwell is told that his former PsyOps buddy Kirby has committed suicide. Caldwell's dead wife's past may not be as squeaky clean as he imagined, and the mild-mannered and beloved family dog, Molly, has seemingly attacked an innocent passerby. Then Hannah, angry and bitter about her mother's death and her father's long absences, takes up with a hardened girl at school and plots revenge against what she sees as her father's misdeeds. But are these misfortunes really random events? Or the work of a brilliant enemy bent on revenge?
Fans who have followed Downs from his debut novel, SHOOFLY PIE, will be delighted to see that he isn't afraid to explore new genres (most previous novels have had a tie-in to forensics or biological warfare). However, they'll also wonder what happened to Downs's delightful sense of humor, which is part of what made his earlier novels (CHOP SHOP) so appealing. It's not in evidence much here. The death of Hannah by a drunk driver is also a stock plot element overly used in faith fiction. One publishing snafu: A discount sticker that the reader is supposed to peel away for instructions on redemption turned out to be a bust --- the instructions were illegible.
However, the success of this suspense novel lies in Downs's fresh approach to what could have been a tired plot in another author's hands (old enemy seeks revenge). One of the most interesting portions of the book is the opening chapter, which is done as a graphic novel illustration of suicide, penned by the author. It's wonderful to see some experimentation in faith fiction --- WestBow is to be commended for taking some chances here --- as should Downs for executing this well. One of Downs's stunning plot twists keeps the reader glued to the story until the last page is turned.
Downs is one of the most talented suspense novelists in the faith fiction genre, and keeps improving with each new book. Readers won't want to miss this one.
--- Reviewed by Cindy Crosby. Contact Cindy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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