25484031Audie Palmer has spent a decade in prison for an armed robbery in which four people died, including two of the gang. Seven million dollars has never been recovered and everybody believes that Audie knows where the money is. For ten years he has been beaten, stabbed, throttled and threatened almost daily by prison guards, inmates and criminal gangs, who all want to answer this same question, but suddenly Audie vanishes, the day before he’s due to be released. Everybody wants to find Audie, but he’s not running. Instead he’s trying to save a life . . . and not just his own.

Billed as a cross between The Shawshank Redemption and No Country For Old Men, Life Or Death has been dubbed by Michael Robotham himself as the book he always meant to write. In all fairness, I would say that this is a book that all crime fiction lovers were meant to read. I have absolutely no qualms in stating that this is one of my absolute stand-out reads of the year so far, and here’s why…

From the very outset, Robotham firmly ensconces us in the world of Audie Palmer, a man on the brink of release from prison who stages an escape the night before his legitimate release. Immediately you are thinking why. Why would you do that? And take it from me, the journey to us discovering the reasons for this is a taut, compelling and dangerous one for us and Audie both. Pursued by both law enforcement, and a fellow prisoner granted an early release to track Audie down, Robotham takes us on nerve shredding yet beautifully paced story, revealing piece by piece the details of the cause of Audie’s incarceration, and his desperate dash for freedom. As he seeks to atone and deliver justice for the violent events of the past, Robotham immerses us in a world of corrupt officialdom who will stop at nothing to silence him…

With some degree of boldness I will say that although this crime novel strays to beyond 500 pages, there is not a single word wasted or scene out of place. I was enraptured from the outset by the vividness of the language, and the natural cadence of the American voice that shone throughout the book. Sometimes, when crime authors are locating their books in a non-native country to themselves, the voices do not so keenly demonstrate the natural rhythms and patterns of dialogue that they are seeking to represent. Robotham has done his homework well, as the natural ebb and flow of the Texan vernacular is keenly resonant throughout the book. Equally, the characterisation of all the main players is beautifully weighted throughout, so that characters that initially appear bad to the bone, are not truly so, as the demands of their public persona are starkly at odds with the depth of emotion, self-preservation and their fundamental human need to protect those closest to them. This is clearly in evidence in both Audie Palmer and law enforcement officer Ryan Valdez, who embark on a violent game of cat and mouse as the book progresses. Both men are imbued with their own sense of honour, sometimes twisted, that drives them to achieve retribution on the other for reasons I will not spoil here. I also loved Special Agent Desiree Furness, a pint-sized powerhouse of feistiness who endlessly strives to overcome both her gender and small stature within the masculine confines of the FBI. She adds not only an interesting counterbalance to the struggle between Audie and Valdez, but also affords Robotham to add some lighter moments to the book.

The slow reveal of Audie’s grand passion with the haunted and beautiful Belita is so poignantly and delicately portrayed, when taken in tandem with the more violent and disturbing aspects of the book, giving wonderful shades of light and dark throughout. Robotham plays with our empathy, and skilfully manipulates our perception of the characters, in a way that I have only rarely witnessed in crime fiction outside of those American crime writers that walk the line between crime writing and contemporary fiction. This along with the beautifully weighted and shifting timeline of the central plot, cannot help but hold you enthralled as the reveal of what has happened in the past gathers momentum to manipulate and taint the events in the present as Audie and Valdez hurtle towards a final showdown.

Although I have been a fan of Robotham’s for many years, as he is a consistently enjoyable crime writer, I was more than taken aback at this change of style, and if I had read this blind, would never have picked him as the author. Consequently, this has increased his stature even more, as this book demonstrates his true flexibility and skill as a writer, and has impressed me greatly, no mean feat in itself! A terrific book and executed quite beautifully. I am now emotionally spent…

Visit Michael Robotham’s website here Follow him on Twitter @michaelrobotham

(With thanks to Little Brown UK for the ARC)

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