REVIEW: Bolt Action Remedy

A little something different in today's Flash Fiction Offensive: Chris McGinley reviews the JJ Hensley novel Bolt Action Remedy.

Bolt Action Remedy by JJ Hensley
Review by Chris McGinley

Trevor Galloway is a sick man. But in the world of J.J. Hensley's new novel, Bolt Action Remedy, it's this very sickness that keeps him alive. A recovering heroin addict and ex-cop who suffers from job-related PTSD, he experiences "blur outs," frequently in the presence of others who think he's gone off the rails . . . again. But in these moments of psychic separation and intense focus, he can see the angles in the case he's trying to solve.
These moments of transcendence, if you will, are just one of many clever elements in Hensley's narrative--little touches, always managed with subtlety, that distinguish this highly readable and carefully plotted novel.
Here's the story. Galloway is a former Pittsburgh detective, and a good one, who once closed a case so brutal and traumatic that it left him with a permanent addict's jones and a whole lot of guilt over some stuff he did along the way. Nowadays, he's a broken man who's lost everything he once had: a wife, a job, and his sanity. (Well, the last item is up for debate, and it's not even clear how Galloway himself would weigh in here.) He questions Galloway's actions constantly. Did that really happen? Did I just do that?  But again, in the hands of Hensley, this material is managed deftly. His anxieties are real, and we never feel that Hensley is asking us to reach.
As a favor to an old colleague and friend, Galloway heads to central Pennsylvania to take a look at a cold case, though he's not really interested in taking on the work. Sure enough, he ends up accepting the job. A sniper has killed a mogul named Peter Lanskard some time ago, but the local cops still haven't closed the case. Galloway is hired on by the victim's well-heeled daughter to find her father's killer. Problem is, the killer seems to be a ghost. He (or she?) has managed to breach an elaborate security system, kill the target, and disappear without a trace.
Chief Sally Colby of the local PD suspects some people who run a biathlon course on the adjoining property. Makes sense, Galloway thinks. You've got expert marksmen with great conditioning, and a motive, too. But the evidence is wanting. Here's where Hensley impresses. He has introduced what in another writer's hands might be a hoky device: the biathlon characters. Again, though, Hensley provides all the needed detail about the sport, whose athletes really do train in Pennsylvania. And he does it seamlessly, so that it doesn't interrupt the flow, and in such a way that it all makes sense.
It's Galloway's insight (psychoses?) and his unique manner of pursuing the suspects that impresses us. He sees things the rest of us don't: little gestures, a fleeting movement, the way someone utters a remark. All of this makes for clever character writing, and for the careful reader it's just the sort of thing that makes this novel especially enjoyable.
Of course, Galloway runs into several roadblocks along the way. One element that hinders the investigation, and nearly pushes the already over-stressed P.I. over the edge, is the presence of a drug cartel figure from his past. Yup, from the case that nearly took his life years ago. Hensley uses this subplot expertly. He ramps up the tension through some intense action and clever twists that give us a short break form the main plot and offer us a glimpse into Galloway's dark and compelling backstory.
One other note on this novel: Hensley has a gift for all sorts of dialogue. Quick rejoinders abound, mostly of the self-deprecating variety, but his characters are alternately funny, sad, confessional, and even philosophical.
Bolt Action Remedy is a fine novel full of action, intelligent design, clever dialogue, and great characters. I look forward to Hensley's next.