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Keeping Watch

Laurie R. King

Bantam Dell / Random House

US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-553-80191-0

Publication Date: 03-04-2003

383 Pages; $23.95

Date Reviewed: 02-28-03  

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2003





Humans damage easily. The most common and severe damage is utterly invisible to the naked eye. As a Vietnam veteran, Allen Carmichael is accustomed to invisible damage. He now rescues children from abusive situations. He's been at it for years, and has finally found something approaching peace on Sanctuary Island. In 'Keeping Watch', by Laurie R. King, Allen Carmichael takes on what he hopes will be his final case, the rescue of Jamie O'Connell. But there's more damage in these lives than Carmichael, or the reader first suspect. Even for someone as experienced as Carmichael, the consequences of failure can still be fatal.

In her thirteenth novel, Laurie King enters new territory with confidence. Readers might not suspect that the author of six Victorian-era Mary Russell novels would be a good fit for a novel about a very damaged Vietnam veteran. But King evades all expectations in this work. After a brief introduction to Allen and Jamie in the present, she takes the reader through Allen's journey from a callow middle-class white kid to the jungles of Vietnam, where a soul-shattering horror encompasses him. King spends much of the first half of this novel creating, destroying then rebuilding Carmichael into something approaching a functional human. It's quite well done. She goes to the edges of some rather disturbing horror that may alarm but probably won't alienate the readers of her other novels. Some may have to shut their eyes briefly, or peek out at the narrative through their fingers. But King keeps an excellent balance. There's enough grit in Carmichael's story to make it seem realistic, but it's not an enthusiastic binge of gratuitous Vietnam violence.

Upon his return to America, Carmichael plunges into the desperate rut of homelessness and madness. Through his own strength, and with the help of his brother, Jerry, he manages to return to something approaching sanity. The damage he's suffered can be mitigated, but not eradicated. When an opportunity to help the widow of one of his squad mates recover her children presents itself, the instincts of the hunter lock in place automatically. Carmichael's new career creates itself.

King's story of how Carmichael comes to his calling is intense and convincing. It's the perfect example of the origin story that begins the saga of so many superheroes, and at one point King lets herself have a little fun with this idea. The author runs a bit of a risk of alienating parts of her current reading audience. She does an excellent job at keeping the tone dark enough to be convincing, but not so scurrilous that the readers will feel as if they need to take a shower after reading.

Having spent a good portion of the book creating the main character, she still manages to keep the other characters and the current day story in focus. The rescue of Jamie O'Connell and his placement in a new loving home all goes smoothly. King gives a fascinating picture of a sort of "Underground Railroad" for the rescue of threatened children. Then she starts to slowly crank up the tension as cracks appear in the edifice of the child's story.

King cranks up the suspense expertly. Her background work on the characters pays off in the tension-filled finale, where what the readers think thy know about the characters -- and what the characters think they know about one another -- undergoes a nicely-turned transformation. This novel is fairly creepy. The disturbing personalities of those who abuse children are expertly used to create terror, not horror. King doesn't flinch at the implications of what she's writing about, but she's very good at misdirection. For all the groundwork that she's put into Allen Carmichael, one hopes that she'll find time to return to the character once the novel is finished.

But 'Keeping Watch' does not appear to be standard origin story for a continuing series. If anything, between 'Folly' and 'Keeping Watch', King has laid the groundwork for something more ambitious than "the continuing adventures of...". Stephen King gets mention by one of the characters in 'Keeping Watch', and his stories of Castle Rock seem to be more the template here than the typical detective series. King creates lots of very interesting characters in 'Keeping Watch' who seem to be jostling for their own novel. Readers will find themselves keeping watch for her next work, to see who else from this terrain gets to tell their story.