Cold Rain, by Craig Smith

A slow-burn thriller about a man’s life being ripped apart: vivid, authentic, and masterfully written.

I turned thirty-seven that summer, older than Dante when he toured Hell, but only by a couple of years. With that typically wry observation, English professor David Albo cues us up to follow his descent into his own personal hell.  As a tenured professor at a small midwestern university, he seems to have it all: a secure job, an idyllic home, and a wife who’s as loving as she is beautiful.  But he has an enemy, someone who’s out to destroy his career, his family, and eventually David himself.  And every effort he makes to protect himself only drags him deeper into the trap.

If you’re going to write about a man’s life going to pieces, the one thing you’d better do is make sure the reader gives a damn about him.  Fortunately, Craig Smith is up to the job.  From the very first line, David Albo doesn’t just leap off the page – he sits you down, buys you a drink and tells you his life story.  He’s good company, a decent man with just enough failings to speed his own downfall (a difficult relationship with the truth being one), and enough grit in his soul to fight through.  As his woes go from sexual harassment charges to the breakdown of his marriage to allegations of murder, his every little flaw gets magnified out of all proportion.  Some of the revelations aren’t pretty – David’s no angel – but Smith’s writing is strong enough that however much David tries your patience, you never stop rooting for him.

There’s plenty to savour here, from the vivid characters to the mounting dread as Albo’s life gets dismembered, to the wry observations of life in a small American college town.  But what stands out most is the quality of the writing.  This is an elegantly crafted book, with a scuffed-up, lived-in feel more akin to ‘faction’ books like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.  Smith’s prose slips down like a well-matured Tennessee whiskey, smooth on the tongue but with a kick in the throat as the revelations pile up.

This book’s been nominated for the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for the thriller of the year, and it’s easy to see why.  It’s not a conventional thriller, but even the leisurely opening set-up chapters keep you gripped, sketching David’s life with a subtle menace that’s a hard trick for any author to pull off.  Once the plot really kicks into gear – as the accusations, the recriminations and eventually the bodies mount – it’s unputdownable.

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