Zero to the Bone
Jane Seville’s Zero to the Bone (2009) combines a complex and intriguing plot that wouldn’t be out of place in an action movie with an intense, angsty romance between a hitman and his would-be victim. It’s a gripping read for around the first three-quarters of the book but after that it starts to meander a bit and while I enjoyed it, it’s a bit overlong and could probably have done with a bit of judicious editorial pruning to tighten up some areas of the plotting and writing.
Maxillofacial surgeon Jack Francisco’s life is turned upside down and inside out after he witnesses a mob hit and agrees to give evidence at trial. He has to leave his Baltimore home and the job that’s been his life’s work behind when he’s taken into protective custody and relocated thousands of miles away in Nevada while he waits for the trial to begin.
The hitman known only as D is one of the best in the business, but is known to have some odd quirks when it comes to which tickets he picks up. Rapists, child molesters and murderers are fair game, but he won’t touch cheating spouses, kids who want to dispose of elderly relatives to get their hands on their money – or witnesses. His handler knows this and isn’t surprised when D passes on the contract from the Dominguez brothers to take out a witness – but they aren’t going to take no for an answer. They blackmail D into picking up the ticket on Jack Francisco, which is why Jack enters the supposedly secure apartment where the Marshals have squirrelled him away, to find a man sitting calmly in an armchair with a gun in his lap.
D knows that if he can get to Jack, then so can anyone else, and although it’s one of the worst ideas he’s ever had, he decides to get Jack out of there and that he’ll protect the man himself until the trial. He knows he’ll have a price on his head within seconds of the news getting out, but he’s the only one who can protect Jack from the scumbags who are after him… and he also suspects that there’s something more going on than someone being pissed at him for refusing a ticket. After all, there are plenty of others out there who would have taken the job without a qualm, so why did the Dominguez brothers go to the trouble of blackmailing him?
The author does a great job of building the suspense as Jack and D go on the run, gradually peeling away the different layers of the plot as it becomes clear that D’s suspicions are correct and someone is targeting him through Jack – and that there is a lot more going on than it at first seemed. The story is intricate and fast-paced, and there are a number of vivid, edge-of-the-seat action scenes and near misses that really ratchet up the tension and keep the reader on their toes. As we move from one heart-pounding scene to another, Jack and D are starting to get a bit of handle on one another, well, insofar as Jack is able to find out anything from the very tight-lipped and closed-off D other than that he’s… well, tight-lipped, closed-off and deeply damaged.
A break in the action allows the author to develop the relationship between the two leads, who are as different as chalk and cheese. Jack is the light to D’s dark; he’s a highly respected surgeon and thoroughly decent man with a generally optimistic disposition, while D is a man tormented by the tragic past that has driven him to become what he is. Weighed down by grief and guilt, he’s spent so much time suppressing his emotions and natural reactions that when we first meet him, he’s starting to wonder if he’s actually a human being any more. But something about Jack gradually starts to make its way under his skin, and D doesn’t at first know how to handle that. He’s drawn to Jack and wants to trust him – but for a man who’s lived by his wits and trusted only one other person (the mysterious X, who is something of a guardian angel at times) for the past decade, trust isn’t given easily. Jack is equally smitten and wants to know the man behind the emotional walls D has constructed, and slowly, the two men forge an incredibly strong bond that develops into a deep and passionate love that is absolutely unshakeable. The relationship is very well done and contains some beautifully written moments of vulnerability and intimacy; and while the sex scenes are not all that explicit, their mutual attraction, longing and need for each other is visceral and really leaps off the page.[Note: there’s no mention of prep or lube in the first sex scene (ouch!) and no mention – or use – of condoms at all.]
I got just over half way through the book confidently expecting to give it a fairly high rating – maybe even a DIK – but as I headed into the final quarter, it started to run out of steam and the excitement and tension that had made it such a compelling read were dissipating. I’m not sure why that was; there was plenty of plot still to go, but it felt overly dragged out and in the end, went on for too long. Reading the epilogue, I got the feeling Zero at the Bone was supposed to have been the first in a series (checking the author’s website later, I found this to be the case), but no sequel has so far appeared :(
Other weaknesses I noted were the lack of background and depth of characterisation of Jack. We’re told early on that he was married to a woman, and later that he’s had a few relationships with men since; he’s very comfortable with his sexuality, but his marriage and divorce are not explained at all and I couldn’t help wondering why, if he knew he was gay, he married a woman in the first place. (It’s never suggested he might be bisexual.) There’s also a real lack of character description; we don’t even know that Jack is dark-haired until really late in the book, for instance, and I found it very hard to picture him or D.
I really liked the author’s writing style, and she has a real talent for describing locations and action sequences so vividly that the reader is right there with the characters. However, I wasn’t wild about her decision to write out D’s dialogue in a way to reflect some kind of accent – we’re never told where he comes from, but it’s “ya” for “you” and “fer” for “for” and “caint” for “can’t”. It’s not as intrusive as some written-out dialects I’ve come across, but it was distracting nonetheless. Also, some of the internal monologuing could have used a trim; there’s a tendency for a character to have a long-winded conversation with himself in the middle of an action scene or when he has to make a split-second decision, and it disrupts the flow.
Fortunately however, the balance between action, suspense and angsty romance is just about right, the good outweighs the not-so-good, and I enjoyed Zero to the Bone in spite of my reservations.
NOTE: It has come to my attention that since I purchased this book, the rights have reverted to the author, who has revised and republished it. One of the things she has changed is the way D’s accent is conveyed; I haven’t got the newer version so I can’t comment on how successful (or otherwise) it is; I just wanted to point out the change.