3 out of 4 stars
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Ordinary Handsome by Stephen Baird literally opens with a bang. Who is Euart Monroe and what reason does he have for seeking deadly revenge on an old man slowly dying from cancer in a nursing home? The story follows multiple narrators as it flows back and forth through time tracking the tangled chain of how these two men are connected. This story is a mystery, but more of a thriller and not a procedural novel where a particular crime is solved.
The story is well written and would be enjoyed by anyone, especially those who are fans of noir style fiction. Baird does an outstanding job of describing the dead end town of Handsome, Oklahoma where much of the action takes place. You can feel the dusty grit of a town only populated by dirt-poor farmers, drunkards, and avaricious bankers. Much like the town, the characters find that they are only given limited options in life, and whether through accident or fate, often seem to choose the wrong path.
There are small opportunities for positive women characters in this book and they exist mostly to support the main story line of the feelings of helplessness that are central to the main characters. There is a strong theme of fathers and sons, again, using the relationships to reinforce the sense that our narrators are merely acting as fate would have them act, resigned to almost no free will.
I especially enjoyed Baird’s mastery of the noir style. On explaining the nursing home he says, “It’s a
place of low expectations and high cholesterol charts. The best you can hope for is a few wet faces at your funeral.” In describing one of the main locations of the story, he says, “Henry Wasson torched The Handsome’s kitchen one night. I guess that was the only way out of the financial cancer that was eating at him. Fat crescent flames blossomed from the fascia boards in minutes, hypnotic curlicues of carmine and creamy yellow.” Baird has a good command and descriptive imagery like this runs throughout the story.
The book is very well edited with no grammatical or spelling errors that jumped out at me as a reader. However, Baird does seem to have an odd way of not adding ‘am’ or ‘pm’ whenever he states what time it is. As this is a novel that jumps back and forth between numerous times, it was a distraction for me to figure out if it was morning or evening the characters were referring to.
I would give this book 3 out of 4 stars. I think one of the strengths of the book is the mystery Baird creates over who is who and how he uses multiple moments in time to increase the suspense, but there are one or two places where I became confused over what was happening. This is a story that travels the minds of its narrators from the past to the present and to their dreams of both the past and present. It was sometimes difficult to track the story through these 4 separate realities.
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