Ali Karim is a Board Member of Bouchercon [The World Crime & Mystery Convention] and co-chaired programming for Bouchercon Raleigh, North Carolina in 2015. He is Assistant Editor of Shots eZine, British correspondent for The Rap Sheet and writes and reviews for many US magazines & Ezines.
This new work by R J Ellory is something of a departure, though set against the usual shadows of contemporary America; Bad Signs is Ellory at his most disturbing. The tale also has a sense of urgency partly because the events unfold over a week in 1960’s rural America, and partly because there is an atmosphere of dread and impeding doom that sits like a cloud over the week that is Bad Signs.
Ellory’s theme is that perhaps the price of friendship comes with a high cost; as the orphaned half-brothers ‘Digger and Clay’ (aka Elliott Danziger and Clarence Luckman) soon discover. Their path gets crossed with psycho-nut job and former murderer Earl Sheridan, who drags them into his own private hell. The madman Sheridan takes the brothers from California, Arizona and into Texas, leading them through a series of violent misadventures. It seems that Sheridan’s presence alters the brothers’ relationship, and makes them face the darkness of their origins.
Perhaps Digger and Clay were born under a bad sign, but as Digger embraces the madness, Clay fights against the shadows that Sheridan brings to their faces. There is philosophical debate as to whether genetics, fate or nurture (or a combination of these), have made the brothers chose their divergent paths, but one thing is certain - Sheridan had a part to play.
Reminiscent of the amoral nihilism of early Jim Thompson, Bad Signs is a shotgun wound to the face with many of the images hard to erase once viewed through Ellory’s imagination. Though as a contrast to the violent imagery, there is real pathos and a dark, dark humour that provides insight into the dark side of human nature. This is Ellory’s ninth published novel and he’s become judicious with harsh editing, propelling the tale using sharp dialogue between Digger and Clay to propel this dark tale to its cathartic conclusion. When you close the book, you won’t forget the two boys Digger and Clay, and the journey that was their undoing, and the grinning face of Earl Sheridan. Without doubt, Bad Signs is Ellory’s most disturbing book, and one that will haunt the reader even more than his breakout - A Quiet Belief in Angels. But a warning it’s not for the faint of heart (and I’m not kidding).