Sometimes an author bursts onto the scene, and you’re hooked immediately. My first Duane Swierczynski book was The Wheelman, which I discovered on the New Fiction shelves at the Tattered Cover in Denver. On the back cover, I read several enthusiastic blurbs from some of my favorite Hard Case Crime authors, and I knew I was in good hands. What a kickass ride! I moved on from that delirious thriller to the hilarious, twisty The Blonde, and at that point I was a fan for life. Here was a writer who boasted a captivating combination of thrills and humor and good ‘ol noir style, just havin’ a friggin’ infectious blast on every page. Swierczynski followed up those instant classics with further humdingers, such as Severance Package, Expiration Date, the Charlie Hardie “ampersand” trilogy (Fun & Games, Hell & Gone, and Point & Shoot), as well as his standalone Mulholland hardcovers Canary and Revolver, not to mention his recent story collection Lush and Other Tales of Boozy Mayhem. Amidst all this fiction output, he’s been uber-busy at Marvel, DC, Valiant, IDW, and Dark Horse, churning out issues of Moon Knight, Punisher, Cable, Birds of Prey, Godzilla, Judge Dredd, Deadpool, and many others.
Now, after a seven-year absence from writing original novels, Swierczynski has returned to Mulholland with his new hardcover California Bear. And … let’s talk about that absence, because a big hunk of it is central and vital to the plot of the new book. Five years ago, Swierczynski’s life and career were tragically altered when his daughter Evie was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia. Following long traumatic months of chemotherapy and bone marrow treatment, Evie succumbed to her disease. As a father and writer and human being (and youth cancer survivor), I witnessed the impact of this event on Swierczynski and his family with profound empathy, and I felt enormous pride in the community for rallying around him. You can see the fruits of these efforts in the Evelyn Swierczynski Foundation.
I mention Evie as prelude to this review because a key character in California Bear is based on her. In fact, that character—Matilda, or “the Girl Detective”—is the character I’ll think of the most when I recall the experience of this book. This aspect of California Bear amounts to a feat of magic, an act of fatherly love, for sure, the kind of miracle that only a fearless writer can achieve.
The story—interestingly, set in 2016—focuses on Jack “Killer” Queen, an ex-con who’s been dealt a rotten hand in life. He’s just out of prison, and before this story even begins he’s lost just about everything: his wife, his job, his career … and suddenly he’s facing the prospect of losing his beloved teen daughter, Matilda (named, naturally, after Natalie Portman’s tough little girl in Leon). He’s got grief in his heart and redemption on his mind as he (along with hospitalized smart-aleck Matilda) becomes wrapped up in the mystery of the long-dormant serial killer California Bear, who has inexplicably become active again. Assisting (or complicating) Jack in his efforts are Cato Hightower, an ex-cop with his own drunken agenda, Cato’s wife Jeanie, a DNA genealogist who has her own instincts about the Bear case, and—looming over the final act of California Bear—the ruthless Hollywood entertainment machine, desperate for a lurid, lucrative story. In time-honored Swierczynski fashion, this is a book characterized by often fever-pitched episodes of violence and humor—scenes that you might envision as action set-pieces in the eventual Shane Black movie adaptation. But in this case, those breakneck scenes are balanced by measured scenes of Matilda and her family bracing themselves for each wrenching development in her medical journey.
There are twists aplenty in this novel, as expected from Swierczynski, and most of those twists are conveyed through the use of multiple narrators. I’m a huge proponent of using many perspectives in fiction (I do it myself), and I enjoyed this approach for the most part. Getting into Matilda’s head was a true treat, and understanding Jack’s motivations was key to the novel’s main thrust, but I admit to wanting further chapters of the two of them every time the narrative shifted to other perspectives—notably, those of Jeanie and the Bear himself. That being said, the point of view of the Bear did prove fascinating in light of the book’s mid-book revelations about this character. Not to spoil anything, but Swierczynski deals with the Bear in a unique way that offers genuine surprises. Still, there were moments when the frenetic perspective shifting had me yearning for some more quality time with father and daughter.
Because it’s the relationship between Jack and Matilda that resonates—and not simply because of its autobiographical elements, although those pack an emotional WALLOP. I dare you to read California Bear and NOT come away with sympathetic tears in your eyes, resulting from the clearly-drawn-from life (and hilarious) banter between father and daughter, or the all-too-real intricacies and heart-rending realities of treating childhood leukemia, or simply your knowledge—as a loyal Swierczynski reader—that he is simply a still-grieving dad reconnecting with his lost girl in a stunning act of literary conjuring. But there’s even more to it than that: Beyond the true emotion from which Swierczynski has created his rich characters, he’s fashioned an extremely satisfying fictionalized father-daughter team-up in service of a very fun yarn. Theirs is a complicated, emotionally freighted, ultimately loving bond that serves the overarching mystery in ways that pay off in unexpected ways.