As with Chelsea Cain’s best-selling Archie Sheridan (tormented detective) vs. Gretchen Lowell (irresistible serial killer) series, her new thriller is not for the faint of heart. Grisly is a word that best describes some scenes, but Cain excels at “dangerous writing” — she’s in a writer’s group with Chuck Palahniuk — going that extra distance with the discomfort factor while ensuring that her raw depictions flawlessly suit their gritty context.
With “One Kick,” Cain introduces Kick Lannigan, a 21-year-old, lean, mean fighting machine. Kick wasn’t always that way: When she was 6 (back then she was “Kit,” short for “Kathleen”), she was kidnapped by seriously bad people, then rescued by the FBI five years later. As if that half-decade of trauma wasn’t bad enough, on Kit’s return her mother cashed in on the whole reality TV and tabloid news frenzy in the worst possible way, going on talk shows, milking rescue anniversaries for all they’re worth and publishing “My Story: Lessons I Learned From My Daughter’s Abduction,” a book, as one character wryly notes, “staggering in its epic narcissism.”
The abduction has left Kick perpetually on guard. She fills her free time working relentlessly to sharpen her preparedness skills whether that means lock-picking, muscle-strengthening, or honing an ability to extricate herself from handcuffs. She can build bombs, discharge a variety of guns with unnerving accuracy, and best her opponents in serious physical tussles. She’s also been through enough therapies to make pretty much anyone’s head spin: “Biofeedback. Meditation. Talk therapy. Drug therapy. Scream therapy. Sensory deprivation tanks. Yoga. Tai chi. Chinese herbs. Equine therapy. None of it had helped.” She uses shower time to proudly take note of her injury collection, from a blackened toenail — “She’d driven that toe into another student’s thigh at the dojo, and his femur had been way worse off” ; to bruising on her legs from learning how to fall and roll; to various scrapes, scabs, and sore ribs: “Each injury made her feel stronger. Not young. Not soft. Safe.”
She’s no social butterfly, as you can imagine, and for good reason — a trip to the shooting range is more likely to expose her to a deceptive reporter passing for a well-coiffed suburban mom than to lead to any kind of firearm-focused bonding. Kick may have been rescued, but the sordid story of her kidnapping and imprisonment remains alive and well, and Cain skillfully maintains an edgy level of tension throughout the narrative. There’s no escaping the frustration and rage Kick battles with, desperate to put her past behind her.
She lives in an apartment above her brother, James, a cyber-genius with a penchant for patterns, algorithms, travel posters, and inspirational quotes. On Kick’s own wall hangs a Rand McNally classroom map, dotted with pushpins, on which she tracks lost, missing, and kidnapped kids.
Then, despite all her vigilance, her home fortress is breached by a mysterious man named John Bishop, who turns out to be an ex-arms dealer with friends in high places and fancy helicopters at his beck and call. He also shares an agenda with Kick: Both of them are keen to rescue a recently kidnapped child named Adam Rice. To say that Kick and Bishop make an uneasy, dissonant team is putting it mildly, but half the fun here is watching that relationship unfold and develop.
To reveal much more would require multiple spoiler alerts, but it’s not giving too much away to mention that throughout much of the book Kick is sporting one mother of a concussion. She’s a tough cookie, but she may have met her match in Bishop. How can we be sure? It becomes clear on the final pages that “One Kick” is kicking off a new series, and that there’s plenty more action to come.Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.