Monday, September 21, 2015

Gravetapping OVERHEAD by Jack M. Bickham

Posted: 20 Sep 2015 05:31 PM PDT
Overhead is the third novel featuring Brad Smith. It was published in 1991 by Tor, and it is something of a transitional novel in the series. It is longer than the first two—as are the three that follow—and it permanently moves Brad from Richardson, Texas to the fictional Elk City, Montana. 

Brad’s old tennis pal, Ted Treacher—who helped Danisa escape Yugoslavia in Tiebreaker—purchased a tennis and golf resort outside of Elk City. There is local opposition, and he is leveraged to the eyeballs. Ted wants Brad’s help to set up a small professional tournament. He has $60,000 purse money and the tournament would bring welcome publicity. Collie wants Brad to do some snooping while he is there. A civilian employee of a nearby Air Force research facility was caught removing classified data, but murdered before she could talk. The FBI thinks the Soviets are behind both spying and murder. It also thinks the killer is Brad’s old nemesis Sylvester. A little loyalty—to Ted, mostly—and a quarrel with the new head tennis pro at the resort Brad works, persuades him to load his Bronco and go to Montana.

Overhead is the weakest of the Brad Smith novels. It is longer than the first two, and several subplots run through its length; specifically, a corporate corruption scandal and an unexplained high rate of child death in Elk City. It is busy, and all of the intrigue distracts from the main focus of the novel—Brad’s and Sylvester’s ever growing annoyance with each other. It isn’t a bad novel at all, but it isn’t quite as good as the other novels in the series. 

The good stuff is the setting, characters, and suspense. Mr. Bickham develops the cloying small town atmosphere of Elk City nicely, and does an even better job with the resort. The characters are never without believable motivation. There is the bully-psychopath Elk City cop, Ted who is falling apart under the financial pressure of the resort, Ardis Allen, a cutthroat businesswoman, Sylvester, and Brad. It is also structured to achieve a high level of suspense. It is written in first—Brad’s perspective—and third person, and the alternating perspective allows the author to prolong suspenseful scenes across more than one chapter (and it works very well).

There is also a nice touch of social commentary, and something about the human experience. My favorite—

“Hemingway liked to talk about how life sometimes bent people, sometimes in such a way that they healed and went on, stronger because of the hurt. He said life sometimes broke people, too. But he never really came to terms with that. Maybe he couldn’t. Maybe at the very end Hemingway understood being truly broken, beyond healing, and that was why he went down to the hallway that fine sunny morning outside of Ketchum and put both barrels of the shotgun to his forehead, just above the eyes, and pulled both triggers.”

Overhead may not be the best of Jack Bickham’s Brad Smith novels, but it is still an exciting, entertaining, and very worthwhile read. 

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