While Ryan Gattis may have only really launched himself into the limelight with All Involved, the novel before this latest release, it is interesting to see that he is now six books into his burgeoning career. In many ways he still feels like an early career writer. Maybe that’s down to the often-youthful characters in his stories, or the fresh feel of his prose. Or maybe it’s because Gattis is a writer who still seems to be trying to find his own voice, always writing about very similar subject matter but investigating new and interesting angles in which to get his point across. The thematic connections between Kung Fu, All Involved, and Safe could not be more apparent. Gattis likes to get into the mindset of the low-level criminal and give his readers some insight into what has led them to this life. He also wants us to consider why we should stop and think before we judge, blame, or label people in this situation.
It’s a worthy cause, and one that Gattis commanded very effectively in All Involved. However, in Safe that command seems to slip. A heist novel that focuses on one safe breaker who is dying of cancer, and trying to rob from criminals to pay off mortgages for people he doesn’t know, is maybe a little too overblown and sentimental to be entirely believable. Add in another main character who runs drugs for his boss but only does it because he loves his little boy, and we’re crossing the line into mawkish. I’m not saying that this isn’t often a motivating factor for criminal activity, because it is, but by painting both his main characters as one-dimensional saints who just happen to rob and sell drugs, Gattis neglects to add the nuance and honesty that made All Involved so refreshing.
This sentimentality also gets in the way of the other thing that could have made this book a success. Tension. When, in the middle of a scene of brutal violence or an attempted robbery, we have to flash back to hear how beautiful the main character’s dead ex-girlfriend looked on the beach, we are pulled out of the moment in a way that is hard to recover from.
Any Cop?: It’s a shame to have to say this when All Involved was among our favourites of 2015, but Gattis falls well short of his previous novel with Safe. Maybe, had it been a book by a writer I had never heard of, I would have recognised its merits more. It is well written and (mostly) pacey. But for Gattis it feels like an unfortunate step backwards. Still, he has shown his quality on more than one occasion and – if he can dial back the sentimental stuff – he will surely do so again. Here’s hoping for better next time.