Shots ring out and the wounded are screaming in the opening lines of Neely Tucker’s new novel, “Only the Hunted Run.” Before we even can take a breath, this fast-paced thriller has dropped us into spitting distance of a mass shooter. It’s “the modern American nightmare” that all of us dread and a gripping start to this enthralling novel.
We’re in this unsettling situation with newspaper reporter Sully Carter who, based on his exploits in past Tucker novels, is a magnet for trouble. Carter is on assignment in the Capitol when the “pop pop popping” of automatic weapon fire begins echoing off the building’s marble and granite surfaces. Carter runs toward the automatic weapon fire — and all we want to do is run forward with him.
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“Only the Hunted Run” is Tucker’s third novel featuring the intrepid Carter. Like the flawed and broken hero of many noir novels, he’s holding it together by marinating himself daily in hefty doses of bourbon. He’s battle-weary, having done time in war zones, but he’s never tired of chasing the news. He needs the high that comes with having his byline on a Page One story. It’s why, as he’s trying to scope out the Capitol shooter, “his heart rate slowed and his breathing deepened. Day-to-day stress drove him up the wall. Chaos suited him.”
Blessed with the kind of luck that die-hard journalists live for — always in the right place when big news is breaking — Carter gets dangerously close to the shooter and elbow deep in the blood of the dead and injured. Turns out that the shooter, Terry Waters — Carter has his name before the police do — was in the Capitol to kill one person, U.S. Rep. Barry Edmonds. He represents the Oklahoma district from which Waters hails. The horrifying description of Edmonds’s corpse and how Waters has exacted revenge on Edmonds is a set piece worthy of a slasher film.
After Carter’s first-person report on the mass murder is published — he works for a major daily in Washington (Tucker writes for The Washington Post) — Waters, who claims to be a Native American, becomes obsessed with Carter. An unsolved murder in Carter’s past intrigues Waters, and he believes they share a similar pain and hunger for revenge. Carter, equally obsessed with Waters’s motives, heads to Oklahoma to suss out Waters’s life story. The 60 or so pages detailing Carter’s visit to the Waters homestead, the story Carter learns from one of the Waters family’s eerie neighbors and his hunt for a grave in a pitch-black cemetery are cloaked by Tucker in a mesmerizingly sinister atmosphere.
The real story of Terry Waters — Carter risks his life to get it — is a doozy, but it’s Carter’s backstory we thirst for. He’s constantly thinking about the next shot of bourbon and the one after that. We can’t help but crave a few more drops of information about the personal events that have formed him, including his mother’s murder. Mostly, these cravings are derailed by the fast-moving plot.
“Only the Hunted Run” is inspired by an actual event. In 1998, Russell Weston entered the Capitol and killed two police officers before he was captured. Weston spent time in St. Elizabeths, the notorious mental health institution in Washington, where John Hinckley, the man who shot Ronald Reagan, spent the past 35 years. Tucker’s descriptions of St. Elizabeths roll out like a black-and-white reel of a mid-20th-century B movie: “The windows looked like cataracts, blind and unseeing. It looked like it could take an artillery hit. It had presence. Like movie stars. Like monsters.”
It’s at St. Elizabeths that “Only the Hunted Run” comes to its dazzling finish. Like the rest of this thriller, it’s dark, ghoulish and dripping with blood and sorrow.
Carol Memmott reviews books for The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
On Tuesday, Neely Tucker will be at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW,
in a conversation with Tayla Burney, a producer on “The Kojo Nnamdi Show.”
By Neely Tucker
Viking. 277 pp. $27