Sunday, January 29, 2012

Until the Last Dog Dies: a Joe Box Mystery by John Lawrence Robinson

I just finished Until the Last Dog Dies by John Laurence Robinson. I must say that I don’t normally read Christian fiction because I don’t enjoy it. This book turned out to be an exception. Robinson has proved to me that Christian writers can cook up as good a suspenseful mystery with lots of action and interesting characters as any secular writer with the added bonus that the reader doesn’t have to wade through gratuitous sex or bad language to get at the actual story.

Story: Joe Box is a rough and tough Vietnam vet trying to eke out a living as a private investigator in Cincinnati. He lives in a beat up apartment with his cat, Noodles, whom he rescued from a couple of drunks who were trying to set the poor thing on fire.

One day at his office he gets a call from one of his “bros,” as he calls the men from the squad he fought in back in Vietnam. He hasn’t heard from any of them in years so this comes as a surprise. This “bro” who’s called “little Bit” is panic stricken and tries to warn Joe that someone from their past in Vietnam has come back into their lives and is going to wreak revenge on everyone in their unit. Joe dismisses little Bit’s ravings as drunken hysteria since apparently little Bit is not entirely sober, judging from his slurred speech. Joe hangs up on him and the next morning he gets a call from little Bit’s wife that her husband is dead. In the next two weeks three more of the squad also wind up dead.

All the deaths look as though they’ve been self-inflicted so the police don’t investigate or make any connections between them. Joe, however, sees a connection. He remembers a conversation he and his bros had one time in the jungle while hunting for a sniper that was picking off American soldiers like flies. They each confessed what they were most afraid of. And that is how each member of Joe’s squad dies. One by one, what they are most afraid of is what kills them.

The rest of the story is Joe trying to contact the remaining members of the squad while conducting his own investigation to locate and stop the murderer. He knows who the murderer is because he knows the one person back in Vietnam who had the motive. As a recently converted Christian, he also knows that the killer is not working alone. He has someone working with him. Or, to be more accurate, through him. The story takes the reader beyond the physical into the spiritual showing us that when good guys fight bad guys, there’s more to the war than what we can see with our eyes. Robinson puts into action St. Paul’s words that we’re not fighting merely flesh and blood but “against the rulers, against the powers, against this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12)

What I liked: Robinson’s characters are believable and interesting. He uses dialogue filled with dry wit and sarcasm that effortlessly bounces back and forth between the protagonist and the other characters he dialogues with. He knows how to infuse humor and make good use of the English language to draw the reader into a believable vicarious experience. Robinson’s characters were people I wanted to get to know. His best passages are the flashbacks to the jungles of Vietnam and the interaction between the platoon members. I found myself looking forward to getting back to the book.

What I didn’t like: Because this is Christian fiction, Robinson apparently wanted to somehow get a Christian message into his book. While I wholeheartedly agree with the effort, his attempt seems forced and inserted into the story almost as an afterthought in order to make the story qualify as “Christian”. As a result, his Christian characters are NOT interesting. They lack any kind of character development or color. Robinson may have been trying to make Christians look like great people who are there for you when you need them (something I don’t contest at all) but they’re so vanilla in flavor and their dialogue so stilted and predictable that I think he could be sending the wrong message to nonbelievers-i.e. Christians are good for help in a pinch but otherwise they’re boring and not worth getting to know.

This goes for Joe’s girlfriend as well. Other than a smile and supportive attitude towards her man she has no personality whatsoever. Please tell a single woman that men want more than a female body with a positive attitude for a relationship. That’s so discouraging.

One other thing: why would a woman who is supposedly a mature Christian engage in a relationship with someone like Joe who’s only just become a believer? Shouldn’t she be looking for a spiritual leader?

Having said that, I still like this book for the reasons already stated. I think Robinson could retool his Christian characters by making them more believable; more colorful. Christians have baggage; show that. Show their vunerabilities-show that being saved doesn’t turn you into a member of the Osmond family. Make them interesting. Let’s see some of that witty bantor fly back and forth between the saved guys. Add that to everything that’s so good about this book and that would turn a good read into a great one.

Until the Last Dog Dies is the first of three in the Joe Box Mystery series.  I enjoyed it enough to want to buy the next two.

Kindle Edition only .99

For more information on John Lawrence Robinson:


Kate Scott said...

Great analysis! If you like a good mystery without all the R rated content, try Back on Murder by J. Mark Bertrand. There's also a sequel to that out now. It's Christian fiction, but it wasn't preachy or anything and the writing was excellent.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Kate: Thanks for letting me know. I'll definitely look that book up!

Sharon Wilfong said...

By the way Kate, I see you're from Midlothian. I have family who live there and around the Richmond area. Great place to visit.