“A Fire in the Night” By: Christopher Swann
“A Fire in the Night”
Author: Christopher Swann
Publisher: Crooked Lane Books
Price: $ 26.95 (Hardcover)
Thriller Set in Carolina Mountains
Christopher Swann, now living and teaching literature in Atlanta, has degrees from W & L and the University of Missouri and a PhD in Creative Writing from Georgia State. He knows the world of academe.
In this, his third novel, Swann has as protagonist Nick Anthony, a retired professor of history from Western Carolina University. Dr. Anthony is a specialist in the Middle Ages and published a serious work,” The Lion and the Prince,” about the relationship between Richard I of England (the lionhearted one) and the great Muslim Sultan Saladin. When the novel opens, he is living alone in a fairly remote cabin in the forest near Cashiers.
Nick has cut himself off from all human contact, even had his land line disconnected. Still handsome and fit, he spends his time hiking and cutting firewood, and grieving the loss of his beloved wife, Ellie. He is in many respects a lost soul.
Then, suddenly, life erupts. A local deputy sheriff arrives with startling news.
Nick’s brother Jay, from whom he has been estranged for many years, has been murdered, along with his wife, and their home in Tampa burned to the ground.
His 16-year-old niece Annalise, not killed in the attack, is missing, and is suspected of the murder of her parents.
Shortly, of course, Annalise will show up at Nick’s place and the action will commence.
Swann handles this plot smoothly, with real confidence. We learn, in bits and pieces, that brother Jay was engaged in some very iffy international deals. Annalise tells her uncle that her dad was, shall we say, a self-employed “businessman” with no discernable business.
He travelled to “the Middle East. Europe sometimes. Singapore. He went to the Gulf states a lot. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE.”
Their family life was chaotic. Sometimes her dad brought home “suitcases full of cash” and other times they were so broke they “had to move because he could no longer afford the mortgage…”
What was brother Jay up to?
Smuggling? International arms dealing with Kurds, perhaps, or with the Houthi in Yemen? What?
Nick has a pretty good idea about this because his past is also mysterious.
Ever since we became familiar with the mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, with his horn-rimmed glasses, who changes clothes in a phone booth and emerges as Superman, we know that the quiet fellow may not be what he seems.
First, the niece and uncle must quickly get acquainted, and learn to trust one another.
We learn that there is a gang of really vile, cold-blooded international mercenaries, so-called “security contractors” chasing Annalise. She has, as is often the case, something they want.
For the record: it seems that just as pimps in novels drive Escalades, mercenaries drive Suburbans. It has room for all the weapons they need.
However will the retired bookish history professor cope with these savage, hardened monsters? Not to worry.
We learn in fragments, and some flashbacks, that Nick’s mother was an Afghan and that he served in the Marine Corps. As a visiting professor he taught for many years in different colleges and universities in the Middle East.
Although a bit rusty, he has skills in spycraft and martial arts and there will be lots of opportunity to use them. I was glad to see the good guys and the bad guys fight it out in Highlands, Cashiers and the Carolina woods. The novel does not go from the Raleigh Airport to Beirut to Baghdad, etc. as has been the custom since “The DaVinci Code.”
The fight scenes are well done, with lots of cunning, ambushes, a variety of impromptu weapons and bloody hand-to-hand combat.
“A Fire in the Night” is a literary novel, with a satisfying but not hectic pace. The characters—Nick, Annalise, the deputy, even walk-ons like the local librarian—are well drawn and they speak in normal sentences, not in the terse staccato, say, of a Mickey Spillane hero or the laconic fragments of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels.
I enjoyed this one and will read another.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.