Given the life he’s lead, Markus may need a notebook to keep track of those names. A childhood scarred by violence lead Markus to a youthful life of crime, one which was only enhanced by his “training” in the “gladiator schools” he was routinely incarcerated in as a result of his criminal activity.
Older and wiser, Markus has remade himself into an upstanding citizen, having moved with his young family from the crime-filled Oakland area to upstate California, to the seemingly idyllic Stagger Bay. His past comes back to haunt him when he’s wrongfully arrested and convicted of the horrific murder of an entire family and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
When he’s finally exonerated by DNA evidence after seven long years, Markus returns to Stagger Bay to find his brother dead at the hands of the police and his wife the victim of her own addictions, having OD’d not long after Markus went to prison. His son, now seventeen and a virtual stranger, wants nothing to do with him, neither do the town’s residents despite Markus having been cleared of the crime. Seeing no reason to stay where he’s not wanted and there’s nothing left for him, Makrus heads out of town… and that’s when his life really gets crazy.
Seeming to attract violence like a magnet, Markus doesn’t even make it to the bus station before being caught up in a hellacious near combat level firefight, with multiple armed robbers freely shooting things out with the police in broad daylight on the streets of Stagger Bay. When the cops go down and the robbers take refuge in the local elementary school Markus takes matters into his own hands, and goes from pariah to hero overnight. Markus soon discovers that fifteen minutes of fame are fifteen more than he’s comfortable with when he becomes the center of a media frenzy. Even the cops, the same ones who previously arrested him for mass murder and took seven years of his life and his family from him, are suddenly treating him like one of the guys.
Things get even weirder when Markus ends up in a rundown section of town called The Gardens and discovers that a serial killer known as The Driver has been killing residents with impunity for years. Suddenly the pieces of the puzzle fall into place for Markus. No one’s caught The Driver because no one’s trying; the cops, at least the ones that matter, are corrupt and protecting The Driver for some reason. Markus also figures it’s virtually a lock that The Driver was responsible for the murders he was convicted of, and that the police deliberately framed him because of his criminal past. Now Markus has two choices… walk away, or set things right.
Author Pearce Hansen has the amazing ability to write larger-than-life and down-to-earth in a single stroke. The violence in Stagger Bay is explicit and epic, with the carnage that takes place at the elementary school being one of the most brutal sequences I’ve ever read. Yet, Hansen keeps it all from being too outlandish by tying it to the impact it has on the world-weary Markus. Hansen also presents Markus with a marvelously wicked catch-22; it was Markus’s talent for violence that originally got him into trouble – both as a youth and by making him the perfect scapegoat for a frame as an adult – but it was also his talent for violence that gave him redemption and turned him into a hero. Now he’s confronted by a situation where more violence is required to resolve it, with the question being what will happen to Markus if he takes that path? Will more violence earn him a trip back to life as a criminal, or will it cement his newfound status as a man on the right side of the law?
There’s no question that Stagger Bay is as noir as it gets, but at the same time there’s also an undeniable Old West feel to the setup. Markus reminded me a bit of Clint Eastwood’s William Munny from Unforgiven. Both are men quite accomplished at violence, and despite having made the attempt to go straight and lead a righteous life both are pulled back into that life of violence by circumstances beyond their control, destined for a showdown with the law. Far from just dropping Markus back into it and letting him run mindlessly wild, however, Hansen takes care to show both the physical and psychological toll that events take on Markus, both of which are myriad. The end result gives Stagger Bay a depth and complexity that makes it staggeringly good.