Desperate HoursThe Desperate Hours
by Joseph Hayes

And now for something completely different…

With Brian’s belongings stored in boxes at the time his birthday came due, some creativity seemed called for. This was not a time to give him any birthday present that would have to be packed and transported into storage space. Hmmmm…  Well, he does spend an hour a day in the car driving to and from work. So how about an audiobook to listen to while he’s on the road? Yes, that’ll do — but what am I to read for him? His taste in novels is very different from mine. He’d groan at hearing Lief Enger and I’d groan at recording James Patterson.

So I went rummaging through the bookshelves looking for something that might be common ground and enjoyable to both reader and listener, and turned up this old novel about a family held hostage by escaped convicts. Hadn’t read it in twenty years, but remembered it wasn’t bad at all. And probably right up Brian’s alley. Took me a couple of weeks to read it onto seven CDs, packaged it up in an envelope — embellished with a more contemporary illustration that wouldn’t make Brian roll his eyes — and said “Happy Birthday, hon” right on time. What did Brian think of it? I’m still waiting to find out. (He’s got some discs yet to go, and he’s reserving judgment until he hears how it ends.)

What did I think of it? Somewhat to my surprise, as it’s outside my usual style, I enjoyed reading it. Mainly because as I read, I grew to like the main character, Dan Hilliard. I’m not even sure if Hilliard is actually intended to be the main character. If there’s an action hero in the book, it’s probably the young lawman Jesse who is hunting the convicts, or the Hilliard daughter’s ex-Marine boyfriend Chuck. Yet Jesse and Chuck struck me as the usual stock characters. Though active enough in the book’s plot, they felt peripheral to the real heart of the story. No, the heart of the story was the stodgy, middle-aged, desperately decent Hilliard.

What kept me turning the pages was my interest in watching the struggles of this decent man trapped in a situation that pressured him to become less decent. He had to find a way to defeat violent men without becoming violent himself, to outsmart dishonest men without losing his own honesty. He found himself telling lies, plotting assaults, doing and saying things that made him recoil at himself. Keeping his family alive became a game played with evil, and playing with evil is as dangerous as playing with fire. Yet at each step, whenever things seem about to descend to murkier depths, we see Hilliard pause, control himself, and rethink his next move. He knows that he can’t let himself be sucked into playing by their cruel rules, that some things are more fundamental than even survival.

Near the end, Jesse offers Dan a gun, a weapon to turn on the convicts. Dan accepts the gun — but first empties it of its bullets. He has made a deliberate choice not to rely on violence as his means of defense. He will defend his family with only an empty gun and his wits, turning the criminals’ own assumptions against them. Thinking that Dan is like themselves, the convicts take for granted that his gun is loaded, as it would be if it were theirs. It isn’t bullets that save the Hilliards, but their own willingness to trust each other.

Jesse is dumbfounded when Dan rejects the bullets. While he recognizes Hilliard’s decency and respects it, he can’t see his own way clear to accepting Hilliard’s methods of dealing with the situation. To Jesse, the risk seems too high. In the end, gunfire decides the outcome, not from Dan’s gun but from Jesse’s. But when I close the book and set it aside, I find that Dan is the one that sticks with me, that his final choices are more convincing to me than Jesse’s.

Hilliard’s choices worked out to a safe solution for his family simply because in a novel of this genre the “good guys” must have a happy ending. Fair enough. We all like the satisfaction of novels with happy endings, mysteries in which the wrongdoers are caught and peaceful order is restored. All of these plot devices are just the fun and games on the book’s surface. What I remember and take away with me, though, isn’t the surface of plot devices. It’s something hiding at the heart, something the book never dares to dig into too deeply, but glances at sideways through the character of Dan. It’s the eternal dilemma of people trying to walk a straight path in a crooked world, which is a riskier walk than the average mystery novel is ever willing to admit, risky in ways more dangerous than death.