In Robert Jackson Bennett’s lackluster debut novel, Mr. Shivers, Marcus Connelly rides the rails seeking vengeance for the murder of his daughter. Joining up with similarly driven individuals, Connelly searches Depression-era America for a killer, the mysterious title character recognizable by distinctive facial scars. To further denigrate his already cliché-ridden tale, Bennett adds a fallen preacher, hobos with hearts of gold, a carnival fortune teller, and a corrupt small town sheriff to the mix.
Bennett attempts to inject an aura of mystery and even a suggestion of the supernatural; instead he just repeatedly pummels the reader.
“What the hell is he?” Connelly said.
“We don’t know,” said Hammond. “We don’t, for sure. He’s motivated to kill and he’s smart enough to keep moving, and it’s getting a lot easier now because the whole goddamn country is moving with him. Migrant workers are everywhere. Everyone is looking for something better. And among them, there’s him. Something drives him to do this, I don’t know what.”
“Some madness, maybe,” said Pike. “Some disease of the brain that urges him to butchery. I’ve heard of such men, like Jack the Ripper in London, years and years ago. Perhaps he’s one of them. He goes from town to town, stalks someone for a few days, then strikes and moves on.”
Not all of it is terrible. There are flashes on panache as Bennett skillfully produces several exciting action sequences. He even manages to insert a surprise or two in the otherwise largely by-the-numbers story.
“Bastards!” shouted one of the voices. “They’re in there!”
For a moment there was nothing. Then the boom of a shotgun crashed through the car and a shaft of sunlight ripped into the dark, a gaping hole right where Pike had been hanging. Splinters of wood flew like chaff and Connelly saw Monk roll away, his head dotted with blood. Roosevelt dove for cover as well, his pack falling to the ground.
“Jesus Christ!” shouted Monk.
Connelly staggered to the door and began trying to undo the wire they had used to shut it. Harsh pistol snaps rang out and more holes began appearing in the ceiling. Something cracked by Connelly’s head. Roonie cried out, clutching his forearm.
“Out of the way!” Pike roared. “Out of the fucking way!”
“Shoot!” Connelly heard himself say. “For God’s sake, someone shoot back.”
Sadly, these moments only serve to accentuate the long lulls during which Bennett spends far too much time establishing scenes. For all his efforts, the author never convincingly evokes the era beyond encyclopedic-style listings of Depression hallmarks (extremely poor people, hobos on trains, etc.). The frequent, often lengthy conversations, though at times interesting, drag down the story in a morass of redundant information and obvious emotional manipulation. Weighing in at 336 pages, the tale of Mr. Shivers really only requires some 200.
“Bad dream?” he asked.
He did not answer, just shook his head.
“What happened?” asked Hammond again.
“There was a desert. A young man, covered in blood. And he ... he told me the world was changing, and I woke up.”
“Well, it sure is, isn’t it?”
Overall, the novel, reminiscent of superior works by Joe R. Lansdale, Richard Matheson, and Robert Bloch, falls short of terrible but at no point does it approach great. Robert Jackson Bennett does demonstrate some potential to emerge as a talented newcomer, but with Mr. Shivers all he achieves is mediocrity. •