Relentless by Clair Poulson
Reviewed by Jennie Hansen
Relentless is a powerful story that grips the reader on several different levels. Poulson’s own background in law enforcement which includes a stint with the Utah State Highway Patrol, eight years as Sheriff, a member of the national advisory board to the FBI, and now justice court judge provides him with details that make his story’s background rich and authentic.
This book begins with a teenager accidentally witnessing a double murder. The murderer sees her and attempts to kill her, too. Though she manages to escape, the experience changes her life. Five years later another teenage girl becomes a hostage of the same murderer, who has escaped prison and returned to the small Colorado town of Pineview to exact revenge on those he blames for sending him to prison. So begins a nightmare journey across Colorado, into Wyoming, touching Utah, and continuing north toward the Canadian border.
The hostage, Erika, begins the story spoiled, naive, and immature. Her focus is all on what she wants and her cleverness in manipulating her parents. Bored with a family camping trip and her father’s cooking, she plays one parent against the other to finagle a trip by herself to a nearby small town for breakfast and supplies. In the small town of Pineview, she eats breakfast at the only caf in town, meets the local police sergeant, and stops at the Quick Stop for supplies. There she has the misfortune of becoming a witness to the shooting of the elderly clerk in a botched holdup and finds herself, along with two other people, being held at gun point by the thief she soon discovers is an escaped murderer.
By slow degrees as Erika becomes the sole hostage and learns how completely she is at the mercy of her captor, she learns to put others before herself. At first she makes dumb decisions because of her fear and her own immaturity, but as the horrible chase continues, she becomes aware of the intense danger those they encounter face, until she reaches the point where she is willing to lay down her life that someone else might live. This growth is presented so subtly it feels authentic.
Butch Snyder elicits some sympathy when the reader learns of his unhappy childhood and the pain he suffered as his father was unfairly ridiculed and of the injustices his family suffered. The police fear Erika may become one of those hostages who identify with their captors to the point he or she cross over the line of sympathy to become abettors to crime. Butch is full of hate and rage, far beyond what can be excused by his earlier slights. He’s also young, fairly attractive, highly intelligent, a top marksman, and without conscience.
Jan, a young female trooper, is assigned to the chase. She’s a remarkably competent officer, but is terrified of the suspect she is pursuing. Even his name brings back her own fear of the time his eyes had met hers and he had vowed to kill her. She shares a strong rapport with her fellow officers, but if they knew the secret she has kept for five years, she wouldn’t be involved in the search for Butch Snyder and his hostage. Along with her personal fears, she also must deal with her growing attraction for the young man who is Erika’s boyfriend.
Bob Evans, the boyfriend, is quite a bit older than Erika. He isn’t sure he loves her, but he does like her a lot and enjoys not only being with her, but being seen with the pretty teenager. He travels from California to Colorado when he learns she has been taken hostage, and though he becomes involved in the chase merely because someone is needed to drive a car to another location after officers have been flown there, the officer in charge likes him and approves of the affect he has on Jan. Sergeant O’Conner allows him to remain in the background during the pursuit where he becomes confused about his feelings for the two young women and is dragged into the action on several occasions in spite of his effort to obey orders by staying back.
Perhaps the most endearing character is the Pineview sergeant, Mike O’Conner who accepts the assignment to follow the young prison escapee he sent to prison five years earlier. He’s not as young as the others involved in the chase; his hair is turning gray and he has a daughter almost the age of the young victim, but his commitment and tenacity never quit.
Most of the officers involved in the chase are portrayed as dedicated, competent lawmen, but there are a couple whose arrogance incites the kind of problems that give law enforcement officers a bad name in many quarters and greatly frustrate good lawmen.
Without ever becoming preachy, Poulsen leads his readers to an understanding of the slow steps involved in moving from self-absorption to a love so great it would be unthinkable not to lose one’s self in service to others. His characters also learn the difference between praying because LDS people are brought up to pray in times of stress, and the prayer that comes from deep within the soul and hovers continually in the person praying’s heart and mind. He touches, too, on the part faith plays in dealing with fear.
Though Relentless is in my opinion the best book Poulson has written, it is exasperating, too. Here’s an author with a powerful story to tell, superb timing, a great plot, authentic background, and likable, believable characters who could have easily turned a “good” book into a “fantastic” book by paying better attention to basic writing technique. Far too many times the reader must re-read sections to discover who thought or said something. Poulson does not stick to one point-of-view through an entire scene, which leaves the reader confused. In fact, the author seems confused as to what actually constitutes a complete scene.
His action would be bolder, without being any more graphic, if he got rid of most of the ‘ly” adverbs he tacks onto his tag lines. I will give him credit for improving this problem a great deal since his last novel. The repetitive use of “already” instead of “all ready” is jarring and detracts from the smooth flow of the story. He would also benefit from watching the sequence of events with greater care. There are several instances where the reader cannot be certain whether a piece of action happened an hour ago or whether the person talking learned of it an hour ago. Several scenes, especially the prologue, would be improved a great deal from more showing and less telling. Relentless is too fine a novel to be hampered by these shortcomings common to new or amateurish authors. Poulson is not an amateur, neither is he new. The power found in Relentless verifies Brother Poulson’s talent, now I hope he will master technical skills to match.
The technical flaws in Relentless won’t keep a reader from thoroughly enjoying the story, but they do detract from an otherwise great reading experience. Some of Poulson’s female characters in previous books have had a slightly cardboard quality, but he has pretty well conquered that problem in this book, making it quite definitely a keeper. I suspect both male and female readers will enjoy this gripping adventure with a tender side.
2002 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.