The Innocents by C. A. Asbrey is the story of a gang of outlaws who hold up the trains and steal the safe belonging to the state, leaving the poor and normal people without any harm. Is that the same old familiar Wild West story? No, this time a female detective comes to look for them. And it does not take long for the reader to find her shackled in a room with no way out, in the hands of the outlaws.
The strength of the novel is its attractive situation and the permanent suspense. A suspense which is the natural outcome of the situation, and found at the ending phrases of each chapter:
Rough arms dragged her from the ground. The pain shot through her arm and across her shoulders, with no consideration of the best position. She was pushed face-down over a horse as a man mounted behind her. This was bad. Very bad. It was looking like she would have to use one of the most extreme survival techniques taught to the female agents. Would it work?
And even in the beginning of the story:
The knife slipped through the skin, twisting and gouging over and over again until the soft flesh was mushy and yielding to the blade. Abigail MacKay’s mounting anxiety showed in her clenched fists whitening her knuckles to pearl. She frowned at the hirsute man selling baked potatoes from the charcoal oven on the platform
Not all the images in the story are that disgusting. In fact, unlike the beginning words, the story is not annoying at all and sometimes it has charming images:
Nat and Jake picked their way back across the scrubby open land, heading due south towards Bannen under a caustic sun and a biting wind. The two horsemen set off at dawn to put as much space between them and any pursuit as possible after breaking into the pawnbroker’s store. They felt comfortable enough to walk the horses for a spell.
Jake saw a lone figure in the distance, riding away from them, leading two horses behind. He was too far away to identify much, he guessed the rider was male because this wasn’t the kind of country where women would ride alone. The man rode from the wild land which led to the rocky lowlands of the mountains out towards Paris. This was not an area for anyone to take the air. It was full of bears, mountain lions, and wild men. Nat threw Jake a look knowing it would take someone quite confident in their ability to defend themselves before they’d ride out in country like this.
Thick, inky blackness hung in an almost palpable murk and the thin moon struggled through a tempest of obscuring clouds which scudded over the silver crescent. The poor, thin light did little to help her see her way through the night, but she urged her colt on, searching the ground for their tracks in the damp earth.
The distant mountains formed a jagged fortress of slate grey against the horizon, encircling the rugged land with spiked castellations. The countryside below was too wide to be called a valley and lacked the expanse of a plain, but the scrubby, graveled land cut out by glaciers was vast enough to lose any number of homesteads among the many trees and rivers cutting through the rough, stony sod. .
low sun blinded them when they loped into the tumbledown homestead. A curious jackrabbit blinked at them from the edge of the clearing, the spoon-like ears twitching at every unfamiliar sound in this peaceful area. It decided against the pleasure of their company and hopped off, bobbing its fluffy tail through the long grass until it disappeared into the shrubbery.
And shocking memorable images now and then:
“The well? Oh, dear Lord. Not the well.”
“We have to check,” Nat agreed, approaching the cover. He paused, holding his tense uncle’s gaze with fearful eyes. “We’ve got to.”
He reached out and pulled back the wooden cover and an ominous cloud of insects flew out, forming a hideous murmuration of necrosis, carrying the stench of rotting flesh with them as they spiraled and danced in mid air in a macabre whirl. Nat steeled himself to peer over the edge, into the black, dank, darkness below.
His breathing came in short, sharp gasps and his fingers tingled. The sense of terrible foreboding washed over him; a terrible legacy which had followed him from his childhood trauma; the day his family were killed. His head swam and every nerve in his body was alight; ready to fight, ready to flee – but actually frozen. The vision of his sister’s broken body loomed into his mind’s eye and the sounds from the past rang in his ears.
Furthermore, there are exact descriptions of the feelings inside each character told by the omniscient narrator:
She gulped back the butterflies spiraling in her stomach and steeled herself to return his gaze. “Yes. I’ll miss you, but right now we’re missing dinner and Jake’s probably…
Did she even know who she now was?
She swung around at a sound behind her. “Nat?”
He stood in the doorway in the same suit he wore at their first meeting
Was this recovery? Did the gnawing ache in her breast …
He gazed right into her, lost in his own thoughts and memories before he spoke as though scattering a nightmare. “A killer. The man with the fast gun. That’s all you see.”
A sardonic laugh slashed the evening chill. “Yeah? You thought exactly that until Nat found the bag.”
“I know. I understand better now.”
He pulled back and stared deep into her, his eyes still swirling with doubt as she spoke again.
“I should have listened to my heart and what I’ve learned about you. I was wrong and I’ll tell that to anyone. Even Alan Pinkerton.”
“You know I do. Stop fishing for compliments, it’s very unattractive.” She thrusted..
Briefly, the novel`s adventure is attractive, the feelings are well written and these have made “The Innocents” a page-turner, although the promising writer has not been completely successful in characterization. The romantic relation made between the two poles is watery and distracting, and it has no role in the progress, insofar as it could be completely omitted. The same “watery” romance has forced the writer to give speeches and to “tell” us, instead of “showing” us that:
sometimes with men you have to let them work things through before they’re ready to talk. We don’t talk about feelings. We act on them, and that can take longer when we know it’d be easier to just thrash the hell out of someone. Give him time, he’ll be back
when he’s ready.
Last but not least, a woman as a detective in Wild West, undoubtedly has to deal with serious challenges, but the writer could not put this in front of the reader’s eyes by creating scenes instead of reminding the reader in every three lines straight forward:
“Ah, women! What do they know?” the sheriff slammed the safe closed. “They ain’t got a clue. You fancy a drink? This is a good day’s work we done here today.”
A cynical look fell over his face as he eyed Abigail with an air of triumph. “I knew the Pinkertons wouldn’t leave an investigation to a woman, and not to a slip of a girl. Why didn’t one of you men come to see me instead?”
“They couldn’t break cover. I could.” She shook her head in resignation, used to the assumptions which came with her sex. “Does it matter? Kurt Schmidt is one of the criminals. He’ll be able to name the rest of them.”