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Onyx reviews: The Night Monster by James Swain

James Carpenter is the classic noir private detective—a man so obsessed by his profession that he has alienated everyone in his life, including his now-ex wife and his previous employers, the police department. He lives in a room over a bar. His only friend is his dog, Buster, although he maintains a good relationship with his college-aged daughter.

Nearly twenty years ago, he made several rookie mistakes when responding to a domestic violence call, including failing to call for backup. Carpenter was disarmed and beaten by the perpetrator, a monster of a man. He didn't even get the license plate number of the vehicle that took the young woman away. The case was never solved, the kidnap victim never found.

As a way of atoning for his failure, Carpenter joined Missing Persons, until he was drummed out of the Broward County Sheriff's Department two years ago for using excessive force. Though his relationship with the police is strained, they often turn to him when children go missing. His ability to solve those cases borders on the eerie—or the eerily convenient. Unfortunately, the author James Swain has chosen to make Carpenter virtually infallible when he tackles one of these cases.

Carpenter's daughter, who plays for the Florida State Lady Seminoles basketball team, thinks a stalker may be filming them. At their next game, Carpenter chases away a man with a video camera, and that night one of his daughter's teammates is kidnapped. Once again, Carpenter is unable to prevent the crime, which involves the same gigantic culprit from long ago. Carpenter can wrestle alligators but he can't lay a hand on this monster.

A lot of what happens in The Night Monster is strains credibility. Though Carpenter is low on money, he can pay for valet parking. After being evicted from his room when his Australian Shepherd goes on a rampage and chews up the mattress, the furnishings and even tears a hole through the wall (is that even possible?) he manages to pack up all of his possessions into his aging, decrepit car a matter of minutes.

After Carpenter's latest run in with the kidnapper sends him to the hospital, he engages in light-hearted banter with his daughter about the cute woman who gave him CPR when he wakes up the next morning, despite the fact that her best friend is missing.

The missing girl's father shows up at their next basketball game. It's hard to imagine a distraught parent having any time for sports during such a crisis. The encounter seems orchestrated by the author so the father can have a run-in with a TV reporter.

The cops are all pigheaded and narrow minded. No matter how much evidence Carpenter presents to them, they stubbornly cling to the first theory of the crime that presents itself. It's hard to understand why Carpenter believes that people will think he's insane if he claims that a 6' 10" / 300 lb man was the kidnapper. It's not like he's claiming it was a space alien or the creature from the black lagoon. Large people exist. In fact, the culprit and his sidekick—the stalker with the video camera—are strongly reminiscent of Lenny and George from Of Mice and Men.

Carpenter is relentlessly correct in his theories. He makes some amazing logical leaps based on minimal evidence. Clues persist for decades just waiting for him to find them.

He has a couple of powerful allies—the wealthy father of the missing basketball player and an FBI agent whose own daughter was taken many years ago. At one point he actually sees the missing girl, but fails to mention that to her father—something that would have comforted and encouraged the man.

Based on wild speculation, he pursues the serial abductors to a small Central Florida town so weird that it feels like it was lifted straight out of an episode of The X-Files or Fringe. The town's secret strains credibility to the breaking point, as does the motivation for the kidnappings.

The final confrontation, however, is anticlimactic. Carpenter's previous ineptitude when confronted with dangerous situations vanishes and everything falls into place.

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