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Review: Out of the Black by John Rector

By Gabino Iglesias

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Sitting down and devouring a novella is something I do regularly. However, sitting down and reading a 250-page novel in one sitting is a different story. It almost happened with John Rector's Out of the Black. In fact, the only thing that kept me from finishing the book in one sitting was the growling coming from my stomach.

Out of the Black follows Matt Caine, a ex-Marine who lost his wife in a car accident and now focuses all his energy on his daughter, Anna. Jobs are hard to come by, his in-laws are threatening to take Anna away, and Matt is in trouble because he borrowed money from someone on the wrong side of law, so when his friend Jay offers him a job, he's forced to take it. The gig is a kidnapping scheme that looks too easy to be true and will put a quarter of a million dollars in Matt's pockets. Unfortunately, Jay is a perennial fuckup who just got out of jail and is once again dealing with drug addiction. With the help of Roach, Jay's girl, they abduct the wife of a local philanthropist. The kidnapping goes as planned, but soon everything else starts going wrong. Jay's drug use leads to something horrible, the philanthropist is not exactly who they thought he was, and the repercussions of their actions reach Anna. What follows is a deadly, violent, and emotionally gritty race to right an ever-growing pile of wrongs.   
So why did I breeze through Out of the Black? Simple: Rector can write. His prose is the kind of stripped, honest, simple-yet-beautiful kind, you know, the type that draws comparisons to Ken Bruen. Between that prose and short, punchy chapters (complete chapters that matter, not that James Patterson-like crap where chapters are short to inflate page count), the narrative moves forward at a feverish speed. Things go very wrong very fast, and that makes for an addictive narrative that keeps you reading and forces you to read fast just to see what's next.

Another element that makes this book a must-read for fans of crime fiction is it's unflinching emotional/psychological brutality. Sure, guys running around with guns promising retribution are fun, but a narrative is much more gripping and exciting when there's a hearth-wrenching and very understandable reason for the violence. Here, Matt is a flawed father who makes some mistakes, but he's also doing everything with Anna's best interest in mind, and that redeeming quality makes the reader stand behind him regardless of his plans.  
Even if the unadorned writing is great and the narrative hooks you from the get-go, Out of the Black does have some flaws. For example, character development took a backseat to action and pain, so we're left with characters that are somewhat two-dimensional. Also, the back stories don't possess a lot of depth and there are a few elements, like Matt's nightmares due to PTSD, that are never fully explored. Both these things would've been fixed with a few more pages, but maybe that would've affected the pacing negatively.
Out of the Black is a novel about a broken man making costly mistakes and brutal payback. These are not the most innovative plot ingredients in crime fiction, but Rector makes them feel new and thrilling. More importantly, the ending is solid; positive but far from perfect, not as dark as the rest of the story, but not saccharine like a Hollywood movie. You could say the conclusion is like a pretty lady with a chipped front tooth.

Out of the Black is a stimulating ride that makes you feel something and keeps you turning the pages. Rector understand economy of language, and that makes this novel feel like a great novella on steroids.