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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

ARC Review: The Freezer by Timothy S. Johnston

If Agatha Christie, Michael Crichton, Isaac Asimov, and Alfred Hitchcock had a (literary) love child, it’d likely take the form of Timothy S. Johnston’s second book in The Tanner Sequence series, THE FREEZER. A masterful combination of horror, sci-fi technothriller, and locked-room mystery, Mr. Johnston’s sophomore novel delivers a tautly paced thriller with Hitchcockian pitch-perfect tension and suspense that surpasses his excellent debut, THE FURNACE, and will have you staying up all night to finish it.

Homicide investigator Lieutenant Kyle Tanner—whom we first met in THE FURNACE, though the mysteries are all self-contained—is en route to Pluto for his engineer girlfriend’s latest assignment and working cases along the way when a mysterious death on a colony in the asteroid between Mars and Jupiter summons him to Ceres. The case is a strange one: a physician-scientist formerly on Jupiter’s ice moon Europa, dead from an aneurysm caused by a nano-bomb inserted in his aorta. A second, more personal—and shocking (apologies to the passersby startled by my very vocal “you did NOT just go there!” outburst upon reading it)— murder by the same MO and Tanner’s discovery that he harbours a nano-bomb himself that will rupture his aorta in four days sends him to a military outpost known as The Freezer in the barren and inhospitable wasteland that is Europa to investigate. Nothing at The Freezer is as it seems and no one is cooperating, and Tanner must unravel the facility’s secrets and find the killer whilst his life ticks away and he stands at the edge of an emotional precipice. The successful locked-room mystery requires that the tension be kept high and the characters (and reader) feeling claustrophobic throughout to stretch everyone’s psyche to the breaking point, and Mr. Johnston does it masterfully from the opening pages. Tanner’s happiness and blossoming new life with girlfriend Shaheen; the deeply personal nature of that second murder; the looming death sentence from the bomb; the dangers of The Freezer’s environment, where the unstable ice, cold, or radiation could easily kill you; the scarce means of escape; the secrets and deception and inability to know whom to trust; the horror of The Freezer’s true purpose; the gruesome murders—it all combines to ratchet up tension with every passing page in a way that does Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense himself, proud.

Less heavy on the science—but still very much science-driven and clearly well researched—than its predecessor, THE FREEZER is more fast-paced and action driven than THE FURNACE. In keeping with Mr. Johnston’s style of melding mystery and suspense/thriller elements, the first half of the book is primarily an Agatha-Christie-in-space whodunit, and Kyle Tanner is a futuristic Hercule Poirot whose knack for uncovering clues and putting together the pieces of seemingly unsolvable crimes is astonishing. Unlike the bombastic and egocentric (albeit admittedly brilliant) Poirot, Tanner is humble, likeable, and real, and on an emotional journey that challenges who he is and what he believes in. The Tanner Sequence books are set in the not-too-distant future where the Terran Confederacy and its Council have saved humanity from greed and corruption and now rule with an iron hand, ruthlessly crushing any semblance of opposition to its authoritarian rule. As a member of the military, Tanner is a tool of that dictatorship and finds himself conflicted between the unquestioned obedience & adherence to the chain of command demanded by the military and the disgruntlement & dissidence of civilians. Tanner’s growth as a character and evolution in this respect is most evident and compelling reading the series in order, but new readers who discover Mr. Johnston’s work with THE FREEZER will still be able to appreciate the richness and awesomeness of Tanner’s character. I’m generally not a fan of first-person narratives, but it works beautifully to make the Tanner Sequence books experiential for the reader and greatly up the ante: I felt as if I was Tanner, racing against the clock to kind the killer and unsure of whether I would live past the next minute.

THE FREEZER is a gripping page-turner that surpasses its already-excellent predecessor and makes a fantastic addition to The Tanner Sequence series. The science is compelling, the writing is excellent, and the depth of human depravity it explores is both disturbing and realistic. It’s not for the squeamish, but fans of mysteries and technothrillers should certainly check out Mr. Johnston’s work. I look forward to Tanner’s next adventure in THE VOID, and any future books in The Tanner Sequence!

**ARC provided by Author**

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