It takes a confident writer to send his main character out in the first 20 pages of a thriller to rescue a missing autistic child - and snatch that child alive from the jaws of an alligator.
How do you follow that?
Read James Swain's The Night Monster and you'll see how.
This is the third novel Swain, who lives in Odessa, has written about Jack Carpenter, a former Broward County missing persons detective turned child abduction specialist "willing to do whatever was necessary to find a child and bring him or her home safely."
Carpenter is a loner, separated from his wife but a loving dad to his college-student daughter, Jessie. He works for his old police colleagues, though often in secret, or for parents.
He's usually broke and lives in a sparse room over a waterfront bar with his closest ally, Buster, a rescued Australian shepherd with a serious attitude (he's based on Swain's own dog). I love this detail; I can't count how many times I've read a thriller in which bad guys sneak up on the hero and thought, "Why doesn't this fool have a dog?" Nobody sneaks up on Buster.
The Night Monster opens with Carpenter's recollection of a case that has haunted him since his early days on the force. He answered a call about a disturbance in a college student's apartment and found her being abducted by a huge, astoundingly strong man, who mowed Carpenter down and got away with the victim. That case, still unsolved 18 years later, offers motivation for Carpenter's obsession with missing persons work.
It also bears terrifying similarities to the abduction of Sara Long, a player for the Florida State University women's basketball team - on which Jessie also plays. Once again, Carpenter is there when a victim is taken and is almost killed trying to rescue her from the giant.
Soon Carpenter realizes he is pursuing a case that involves repeated abductions of similar young women, who were probably held alive rather than killed - not unlike the real case of Jaycee Dugard that recently broke. Swain based the book in part on an older case, the 1989 disappearance of University of Florida student Tiffany Sessions, and he draws on other Florida true crime stories as well, such as the bizarre tale of the town of Vernon, a.k.a. "Nub City."
Swain is interested not just in abductors and their victims but in the effects of such crimes on the families left behind. In The Night Monster he effectively contrasts Sara's father, Karl Long, a wealthy man who is all raw grief and rage and gets in Carpenter's way, with an FBI agent, Ken Linderman, whose daughter was abducted five years ago. Linderman's first wildfire of emotion has burned down to embers, but his desire to find his child drives everything he does.
Tightly paced, shocking but believable, The Night Monster sends Carpenter up against creatures far worse than that alligator. But he's up for the job.
The Night Monster
By James Swain
Ballantine Books, 320 pages, $26