The First Stone

First Stone cover

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It doesn’t take too much of a stretch of the imagination to envisage the dystopian American society of Elliott Hunter’s debut novel. The First Stone. It’s all too plausible. Set in the not-too-distant future, (or perhaps an alternative present), this America has become an intolerant place dominated by The Council of Elders, a fundamentalist group that has become the real rulers of the new America in the years after Houston had been vaporised by a terrorist nuclear device.

America had lashed out in retaliation of course. Despite protestations of innocence the Iranians had been blamed and Tehran had been razed. Egged on by zealots from hundreds of fundamentalist preachers who provided the willing cannon fodder for a new Great Patriotic Crusade against terror, American soldiers occupied large parts of the Middle East. Thousands of soldiers had died there and many more had come home, seriously wounded, traumatised or damaged by chemicals and radiation. One such former soldier was Felix Strange, a private eye who suffers from a debilitating illness picked up in Iran that has neither a name nor a cure.

Strange doesn’t normally deal with homicide cases, but when the body of America’s most loved preacher, Brother Isaiah, is found strangled to death in his New York hotel room, he is called in to investigate. He’d rather not get involved in this case, but Ezekiel White who leads the morality police, the ‘Committee for Child Protection’ has ways and means of forcing him to comply.

White’s CCP goons, known as the Holy Rollers, are outflanked by Brother Isaiah’s Crusade of Love; an independent body of religious zealots who send their spies into different towns and cities in advance of a visit by the influential preacher. Pretty-boy ‘ex-gay’ activists entrap closet gays. Attractive young ladies do the same for amorous men in positions of authority. The unfortunate victims then find themselves denounced for their perversity by Brother Isaiah at one of his huge evangelistic rallies. Brother Isaiah may have had the US President and the Congress in his pocket, and Jesus on his side, but he had surely annoyed somebody enough to kill him. Strange has a week to find out who killed Brother Isaiah and why, if he lives that long…

This modern noir reflects the grim humour and terse prose of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler for the twenty-first century. All the ingredients are there; a mystery death, a race against time to meet a deadline, people out to stop our protagonist and one of the finest examples of a femme fatale to appear in crime fiction for decades. This is an outstanding book, both in terms of characterisation and sharp dialogue and most notably in its author’s scarily plausible portrayal of a society dominated by an intolerant fundamentalist version of Christianity.

Reviewed by David Kerr

The First Stone (the first in the Strange Trilogy). Elliott Hall

 

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