Austin-based Dana Barney’s thriller sequel is tricky, cerebral

  • Kirkus Reviews
12:00 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017 Insight and Books
“The Last Sheriff in Texas,” James P. McCollom

In Dana Barney’s futuristic thriller “Half Life,” a sequel to “Flatline” (2015), a conspiracy debunker uncovers evidence of an elite plot against the world.

In Austin, Peter Richards used to be an investigative journalist but became the victim of a conspiracy so stressful it gave him a heart attack. A mechanical heart restored his life (though he died and was revived twice more). His name was cleared, and now, 10 years later, with technology having advanced sufficiently that a robot hosts the evening news, Peter makes a living debunking conspiracies. His former news director, Cleft Duvall, who also helped expose the truth, runs a company helping people establish new identities. And Detective Skelly, who once suspected Peter of murder, has very little work to do because the Miles Cooperative keeps cities like Austin safer than the police ever did through constant electronic surveillance; homicide is no longer a category on coroners’ reports. But a couple of recent deaths look like murder to Skelly, so he keeps digging. Miles himself contacts Peter, asking him to do a story assuring people that the cooperative isn’t part of some global elite trying to enslave the world through technology. Certainly not. Peter’s and Skelly’s research projects converge on a virtual reality game called Stolen Planet whose objective is to infiltrate a secret world-threatening organization and dismantle it. Amid growing chaos in his marriage and abroad, Peter longs for the calm of the afterlife but commits himself to a dangerous course. Barney, as he did in his previous novel, keeps readers guessing with inventive twists and on edge with the paranoid atmosphere and prickliness of his characters’ interactions. For example, the vibe between Peter and his wife and some neighbors when they get together to play Stolen Planet is fascinatingly uncomfortable, both sexual and hostile. The novel also raises interesting questions about our relationship with technology and its uses and misuses, especially by those in power.

“Half Life” is a tricky, cerebral action-filled thriller that fulfills the promise of its predecessor.

An exploration of law enforcement

James P. McCollom’s “The Last Sheriff in Texas” is a true-crime story centering on a South Texas lawman who became a law unto himself.

Local county sheriffs don’t often make the national news unless they’ve been pardoned by the nation’s chief executive for crimes committed in office. An exception was Bee County, roughly midway between Corpus Christi and San Antonio, where in the late 1940s and early ’50s a latter-day Wyatt Earp named Vail Ennis ruled with a gun and attracted plenty of press. In a story whose mood matches John Sayles’ melancholic film Lone Star, native son McCollom (“The Continental Affair: The Rise and Fall of the Continental Illinois Bank,” 1987), after a career as an international banker, comes back to home ground to recount Ennis’ career. The author opens on a note that might well have been a closing, when, in November 1947, Ennis shot two grifters dead — after one of them shot him five times. “He turned around to me and said Houston you better get me to a doctor quick,” said an eyewitness. “I’m dyin’.” Improbably, Ennis did not die, but the lead in his system didn’t improve his mood. McCollom contrasts Ennis’ old-fashioned law-keeping, as mean as Roy Bean’s but without the eccentricity, with the needs of a modernizing Texas, which brought his rule to an end following an electoral uprising by a mostly Hispanic population that had not turned out before, even after suffering the sheriff’s racist attentions. Ennis, who had taken care to put notches on his gun for each kill and who engaged in plenty of intimidation to keep those voters away from the polls, said that if the county didn’t want him, he didn’t want it, adding that “the results of the election convinces (sic) me that people are more interested in politics than in law enforcement.”

“The Last Sheriff” should be of interest to students of Texas history as well as aspiring law enforcement officers, who should read it as an example of how not to conduct themselves.

(McCollom will speak and sign copies of his book starting at 3 p.m. Dec. 2 at BookPeople. Free to attend; only books purchased at BookPeople are eligible for signing. Information: