First published back in September of 2017, ‘Low’ formed the first full-length novel from US author Mike Duke (the previous offerings all being novellas).

DLS Synopsis:
Officer Mark Adams was having a tough time.  When Amy and he lost their first child, their relationship started on a downward spiral.  Mark desperately wanted to talk about it.  Seeking comfort from their shared loss.  To bring the hurt and pain out into the open to allow their wounds the air they needed to heal.  But Amy couldn’t do that.  She clung to any shreds of normality she could find.  Anything that could help her pretend they were back to where they were before.  To give her time to get past the hurt.  To allow her space to breathe.  To heal in her own way.

The clash of needs at such a crushing time caused rifts to form in their now increasingly fragile relationship.  Their marriage was starting to slide.  Mark had dug his head deep into his work and martial arts training.  He focussed all his strength on being a cop.  Let his work swallow up his hours.  Consume him.

No matter how hard he worked, no matter how much of his life he‘d dedicated to being the best cop he could be, the streets still harboured more and more scum.  A conviction that actually stuck was becoming like the Holy Grail. And even when they had the guy nailed, true justice was rarely ever achieved.  Mike knew it just as much as the perpetrators knew it.  And it was beginning to take its toll on him.

Meanwhile, hotshot lawyer Chad Bigleby is facing his own problems.  Unbeknown to his wife, Chad has a young son.  But despite Chad’s success and relative wealth, he knew he’d failed his son.  He’d not arranged any medical insurance for Robbie, and now his son was facing leukaemia.  Chad knew he had to do something.  He’d do whatever it took to get the money together for his son to be well again.  Whatever was needed.

However, something had arrived into Pleasant Grove that would have a part to play in all these tough moral decisions.  Out on the streets the homeless have another one of their kind amongst them.  A shabby old man with his companion dog, by his side.  Another downtrodden vagrant who speaks surprisingly well, and asks for little.  But before the night is out, this new arrival will have taken far more than anyone bargained for.

All of a sudden, the criminal scum of the streets are turning up dead.  Officer Mark Adams is on the case, but at the back of his mind, he can’t help feeling justice is finally being served.  That divine retribution is here.  And it’s carving its way through the streets of Pleasant Grove.

Something is stalking Pleasant Grove.  Something ancient, reaping the souls of the damned.  The corrupt.  Those that sin.  Those that betray.  Those that brought the wrath upon themselves.

But some things aren’t so simple.  Nothing is ever so black and white.  There are reasons for everything.  Reasons and repercussions.  The question is, when someone really wants something bad, how low will they go to get it?...

DLS Review:
Let’s not beat around the bush.  Duke’s latest offering ‘Low’ is a stampeding, guttural roaring beast of a novel.  It’s a hefty tome, with a plethora of meandering storylines supported by a well fleshed-out cast of characters, each playing their own unique roles in the enfolding horror-drama of the tale.

In essence what we have with ‘Low’ is a complexly interwoven character and moral driven story that asks the question: “how low will people go to get what they want?”.  Couple this with an ancient, age old demonic entity stalking its victims through their dream worlds and then ultimately into their waking lives.  A supernatural judge, jury and executioner all rolled up into one hellish entity that seeks out the sinners and the betrayers in order to serve up some cold-hearted justice.  The end result of all this is a tale that digs deep into the soil of our own lives, exposing the dirt and grime and skeletons we hoped would remain buried.

Like with his ‘Ashely’s Tale’ trilogy, Duke once again challenges us with questions of morality.  How far can you push justifiable retribution?  Or more specifically here, how low can we condone someone’s actions, before it’s gone too far?

Of course, nothing’s black and white.  Life never is.  That’s what makes us human.  Makes us all different and independently unique.  Duke knows this, and has shrewdly zeroed in on this delicate tightrope walk, raising more questions and self-reflective provocations than a session with some overly-paid psychiatrist.

Duke was a cop for some twelve years or so.  It’s not a secret.  And his time in the force has definitely served him well as far as writing fiction of this nature goes.  He knows the lingo.  The routine and intricate details that come with the job.  The personal and emotional effects it has on those walking the beat.  As such, with ‘Low’ we get an inside perspective of this.  One that we can believe.  One that sings true.  The humorous little side stories that he throws in.  The unconscious snippets of life on the force and the ramifications of each action or decision made – no matter how small they may have started out as.

Our principal protagonist – Officer Mark Adams – is what many would define as a textbook protagonist.  He’s honest, loyal and unendingly true to his own moral values and beliefs.  But he’s nevertheless flawed in inherently human ways.  It’s this that makes him believable.  Makes us side with the guy that much more.  Okay, so Duke’s enhanced certain characteristics of his protagonist to enable us to really embrace the rollercoaster ride that comes with following him.  He’s practically beating hot women off him with a stick.  But even with temptation thrown his way on pretty much an hourly basis (I kid you not) he’s still never swayed from renaming loyal to his wife.  Even whilst they go through a temporary separation.

Of course, it’s not all about the good guys (of which there are very few in the novel).  Introduced from early on, and remaining an ever-present, almost omnipresent figure throughout the length of the tale, we have Mister Phailees and his canine companion Phobos.  Their presence and impact on the spiralling storyline is one that’s only gradually revealed.  At first the kindly old tramp appears to be nothing but the most charming of sorts.  Knocking down our defences and bringing a smile to your face.  However it’s not long before we see his hidden side.  The real face of Phailees and his beast Phobos.  Half dog, half demon, with needle-sharp snake-like incisors that pierce the supple flesh of the sinners – when the horror steps out from the murky shadows, you fucking know about it.

There’s a lot in the novel that will get you pondering your own life.  Questions of morality that get you reflecting back.  Forgiveness and redemption form key building blocks in the foundations of the story.  Ultimately the tale becomes one that deals with the triumph of good over evil.  Of the inner struggle that man is faced with as he’s forced to make choices between the two sides.  But of course, neither direction is all that clear.  Neither way is ever an easy choice to make.  And complete universal justification is often difficult to achieve.  In that way ‘Low’ becomes very Stephen King like in how it comes together.  The moral decisions, the fight with good against evil, even the religious aspects feel King-essque.  Although, I have to say, as the novel edges towards it explosive conclusion, the weight of Christian atonement that’s laid on becomes a tad too suffocating for this reviewer.

That said, there’s no escaping the fact that this is a truly captivating read.  The characters - and there’s a good diversity in the cast that Duke brings to the table – all have their own unique voices.  There’s depth to them, along with intrinsically interwoven and carefully plotted backstories that will eventually have a strong bearing on the final outcome of the tale.

Admittedly the story isn’t without a few, reasonably minor patches that don’t sit all that well.  Yes there’s a complexly woven storyline that pulls you along in its charging wake, but there are also segments in the novel that just don’t slot in that well.  The flow and pacing stutters from time to time as Duke spends that little too long embracing the ‘cop’ side of the novel.  The humorous stories and examples of rigorous police protocol begin to feel a tad too cumbersome when relayed in full.  The momentum and pacing begins to tread water, as Duke divulges the fullness of these details.  It’s not that they’re not interesting or entertaining, but the overall flow suffers because of it.  It forgoes its tightness and any urgency that was built up is lost to this padding.

Similarly, dialogue is sometimes too overly stretched out.  Conversations can lose their purpose in the grand scheme of things.  Interactions between the characters are shown to a fuller degree than is entirely necessary.  Yes, it helps with characterisation, but not necessarily recurring throughout so much of the book.

Nevertheless, with ‘Low’ there’s just so much to like.  So much to pull you into this world of sin, brutal bloodthirsty comeuppance, cut-throat justice and the inner-struggle for forgiveness.  The whole thing breaths with an instantly identifiable human touch.  Hurt, pain and injustice are heaped on your shoulders as you wade through a quagmire of emotional turmoil and high-adrenaline horror-cum-cop-thriller action.  Duke knows how to capture his audience.  How to fling you to the wolves, and then come in fighting by your side.

One thing’s for sure, this is one gut-punch of a brutal and utterly compelling read.  It interlaces a fast-paced, hard-boiled cop plotline with a dark and creeping horror which gradually corrupts and consumes you like a cancer of malignant retribution.  Put your morals on the mortuary table, and prepare yourself for a slice and dice onslaught on everything that makes you human.  Everything that makes you flawed.

Prepare yourself for a battle for justice like no other.  A fight for survival against the threat of eternal, unspeakable, hellish damnation.  There’s an ancient evil walking the streets.  Madness is ripping through the concrete jungle of Pleasant Grove.  Before long, you’ll not even be able to trust what your eyes are showing you.  For the demons of hell are well and truly here.  And whether you choose to believe it or not, the battle for your soul has begun.

The novel runs for a total of 438 pages.

© DLS Reviews

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