Breakneck (An Arliss Cutter Novel)
This book is packed. Jam-packed with action, adventure, characters, locations, subplots, violence, and nature. Packed with short chapters and switching viewpoints and breakneck pace to convey it all in classic thriller style. Even the pauses for rest are packed with tension.
In other words, this is not a light or easy read! And the title couldn’t be more appropriate.
Fans of the Arliss Cutter series, of which this is book five, will know what to expect and take it in stride. Cutter is a U.S. Marshall working in Alaska, and—as the advance reader copy says on the cover but might not appear on the final—“He’s a force of nature. But so is the Alaskan wilderness.”
That tagline covers the gist of the series. Each episode pits Cutter against the environment as part of a case involving very nasty criminals. They are particularly nasty in Breakneck, aiming to torture and murder a U.S. Supreme Court Justice on livestream media in retribution for her judgments against the bad guys’ loved ones. (Yes, the bad guys aren’t cartoons: They can love and hurt, too.)
To eliminate their enemy, they’ve got to get at her, which involves complex planning and maneuvers. And killing. Lots of killing of anybody in the way.
Cutter and his associates are assigned to protect the Justice and her daughter during their visit to a judicial conference in Fairbanks, followed by a scenic tour of Alaska’s grandeur via a special railroad service. Cutter’s technical specialty is tracking, so leading up to the Justice’s arrival, he is called out to connected crime scenes to help piece together the mystery. Then he’s restored to the protective detail for the Justice’s tour. Which goes well until the bad guys catch up with them.
Cutter himself is a near-berserker in his capacity to fight and protect. He always has lots to protect: himself, his charges, his family, his team, and his government. All are threatened at some level or other, both in the series and this particular volume.
The downside to Breakneck is its very jam-packedness. So much is going on, in so many places, involving so many people, that a map and list of characters, in their groupings, would be a big help to readers who don’t have fantastic memories. The book is long enough to not be gulped down in one sitting, requiring some readers who return to it after a break to backpedal and get caught up.
Meanwhile, the Alaska setting is its own extreme. On one hand, the season is summer in this book, for what that’s worth at the top of the world. On the other hand, the story takes place between relatively civilized Anchorage and dubiously civilized Barrow (a.k.a. Utqiagvik), the northernmost town in the United States. Which is waaaaaaay up there—as alien and harsh as another planet from the average citizen’s perspective.
Anyone from the lower 48 with romantic notions about the sublime Alaskan wilderness and its noble tenants will fast be disabused of those notions after reading these novels. The wilderness is vast and cruel beyond most people’s comprehension, and the author, who has lived and worked in the state, reveals its magnificent and appalling power, and its diverse and conflicting cultures.
Woven into the plot threads of crime and corruption are a bit of romance (Cutter and his widowed sister-in-law, a subplot developing over the series); enlightening interactions among the state, federal, and local law enforcement agencies; vignettes about the various livelihoods and practices of people who live in the bush, and their settlement histories. Not to mention flora and fauna of the region.
Each element goes by at breakneck speed, so readers need to be on their toes. The author makes everything easier to follow with high-level writing skill. In addition to this series and his other adventure novels, Cameron was passed the baton to continue writing the Jack Ryan thrillers originated by Tom Clancy. So he knows how to turn a phrase, capture a compelling action or image, and build a nail-biting scenario. His experience in law enforcement, especially the U.S. Marshals Service, adds authenticity to these dramas.
Breakneck is probably not the right volume to start with for comprehending the Arliss Cutter series. The characters and cases make most sense and can be best appreciated after reading the previous books. Which is good news for readers just encountering the series. There are four terrific novels to enjoy first!