Chet Williamson,
The Searchers: City of Iron
(Avon, 1998)

The popularity of The X-Files on TV has caused a flood on the market of books related to the paranormal and secret government investigations thereof. One solid entry into the field is Chet Williamson's City of Iron, the first book in his The Searchers trilogy.

Williamson's protagonists are CIA, not FBI, which makes their investigations into events with U.S. borders a little shady from the start. The motives of the team's superiors are never quite clear, but it's apparent that more will come out in future volumes explaining potential duplicity and underhandedness.

The team in question is composed of agents Laika Harris, Joseph Stein and Tony Luciano. They are operatives with differing specialties, as would be expected, and have never worked together before this new assignment. They are, as they're told in the beginning, supposed to investigate and debunk claims of the paranormal. They're the "weird-shit crew," and they get their first field test by infiltrating the set and disproving the methods of a psychic charlatan in Scotland. With that mission accomplished, they're sent back to the States for more serious undertakings under the guise of a nonexistent Division of Special Investigations for the National Science Foundation.

Stein is the brains of the group, the one who -- like The X-Files' Fox Mulder -- makes natural leaps and connections to solve the problems before them. He is a natural skeptic, finding very little worthy of belief in the realms of superstition and religion. He's also spent most of his career behind a desk and isn't necessarily ready for a field position.

Luciano is the brawn, the handyman who can pick a lock and shoot a bad guy with equal precision. He is also a deeply faithful Catholic, and his beliefs quickly bring him into conflict with his incredulous partner.

And Harris is the team leader, the decision-maker who has to keep the other two in line despite troubling, and sometimes hard to believe, circumstances. However, her own past failings put her and her team in jeopardy.

There are several threads which are woven together in this first book. The most interesting deals with a gathering of apparent immortals who have a holy task before them. Another deals with a supposed townhouse haunting, while a third leads to the investigation of an inexplicable disappearance. The latter case revolves around an eccentric sculptor and the last great work he nearly finished before vanishing in a fiery explosion, and it is this case which absorbs most of the CIA team's time.

By novel's end, readers will probably still be fairly unclear where these threads are going, and even if they intertwine at all. Suffice it to say there are still many questions demanding resolution by the end of the series ... and the religious ramifications in particular will be fascinating to watch unfold.

City of Iron kept me riveted 'til the final page, although I did feel the best piece of the puzzle got the least attention. There are characters and peculiarities I very much wanted to see developed and explored further, but circumstances by book's end leave me in doubt whether they, at least, will be getting much more exposition.

The only major weakness in the book is one of racial stereotypes. The specifically black characters who appear fit too neatly into an unflattering mold. The only exception is Harris herself -- and she is one-quarter white.

Otherwise, City of Iron is a tempting introduction to the series, and I'm eager to see where Williamson leads us next.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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