Chet Williamson,
McKain's Dilemma
(Tor, 1988)

McKain's Dilemma isn't a hard-boiled detective thriller. Rather, it's a suspenseful tale with more than the usual measure of humanity. Indeed, thriller fans might be disappointed that the mystery -- a missing person case which turns quickly to murder -- is solved fewer than 75 pages into the book.

Or, rather, it seems to be. The fate of Christopher Townes is determined, the guilty are found and compassion wins out over justice. Case closed. Right?

From there, the book takes a more personal tone. Robert McKain, a competent if unexciting investigator (who balks at being called a "detective"), falls ill, and soon learns he has cancer. This isn't one of those cancers people usually recover from or lead normal lives with -- it's leukemia, acute myeloblastic, and McKain isn't going to have a very long life. The story from here becomes immensely intimate and introspective as McKain grapples with the physical effects and psychological ramifications of his terminal disease. We watch as his relationship with his family -- a loving wife and teen-age daughter -- decays as his own personality changes. He almost loses the will to live, but finds giving up to be harder than suffering through a life gone wrong.

It's not easy stuff to read. But author Chet Williamson handles it adroitly, plucking the reader's emotions like harp strings without ever becoming too maudlin or banal.

Then McKain finds new purpose in life when a case he thought long over rears its head. And then a shot is fired that I never even dreamed to expect.

McKain's Dilemma is a fast read -- at least, it is when you find it hard to put it down to do other things. It's suspenseful and character-driven, and both aspects of the novel are equally absorbing. Tor has unfortunately let this one go out of print; hopefully, it's on their short list for reintroduction to the market. In the meantime, this is one worth keeping your eyes open for in used bookstores and online catalogues.

[ by Tom Knapp ]