Steve Westover's debut novel Defensive Tactics is an LDS action thriller that tackles more than just a corrupt judge, a crime boss, a possible FBI mole, and all the bad-guy goons we love to see in this type of story. He also delves into deeper issues like moral relativism. How far should one go, for example, in performing the requirements of a job--especially if that job is one that can affect the greater good? And what are the implications of doing the right thing for the wrong reasons? Or what is the proper response to sexual harrassment?
Paul Stevens has a great job at the FBI and a budding romance with the beautiful Emily, a fellow agent. Then Jimmy, a childhood friend who's life has taken a tragic turn, winds up on his doorstep looking for a handout. Jimmy's interest in Emily puts Paul's friendship to the test. Meanwhile, Emily's work to take down a corrupt judge places her life in danger, and Paul is forced to put his job on the line to protect her. Soon Jimmy and Paul join forces as they race to save her life.
There are many things I liked about this book. First of all, Westover manages to play nicely into one of my own fantasies--to be an FBI (or CIA) agent. Of course I imagine myself speaking a half dozen languages and kung fu-ing bad guys until they beg for mercy, but Emily's response to undercover work is a lot closer to what my reality would be, which, oddly enough, worked for me quite well. The escape scene toward the end was one of my favorite parts of the book, and Emily proves that sometimes it's good to be underestimated. Which is great, since my language skills won't send the CIA knocking on my door anytime soon and my kung fu would be more of the Kung Fu Panda style rather than the Sidney Bristow style. But hey, that's where imagination comes in. Anyway, sometimes it's nice when imagination doesn't have to work quite so hard, and I could really relate to the character of Emily.
I also liked that Westover gave the reader bigger picture ideas to think about in his book. As mentioned before, this book isn't simply a quick, action-packed read--though the pace does move along nicely. Westover seeks to show how everyday life can sometimes bring out the best and worst in each of us. And like any good book should, his ends with his main characters achieving real growth.
The English major in me can't help but point out that several times I wanted to take out my red pen and mark passages that I found either poorly executed or lacking in typical conventions I would expect in published work. Sometimes point of view shifted inappropriately, for one. These issues might not be so nails-on-the-chalkboard for some readers, but it was enough to cause me to cringe more than once. At other times the story lagged or seemed contrived or that resolution of difficult issues came too easily. There were also issues that never seemed to be resolved with the main characters, like Jimmy's broken relationship at the beginning of the book that gets mentioned only in passing later on, even though it seems like it should have had more fleshing out.
Perhaps my biggest complaint would be that I wanted more out of the story and more character development. The plot is fantastic, the characters are likeable, if sometimes predictable, but I think so much more could have been developed here. Having said that, Westover leaves the story with unanswered questions that could work nicely into a second novel with the same characters. I, for one, would want to read it if he does.
Overall, this is a great first novel, and Steve Westover shows promise in this genre. I look forward to his future work.
To learn more about Steve Westover visit his blog here.