“Sherer keeps the live wires of his complex plot sparking and distinct. … This is a sharp and satisfying thriller.”
“Starts your adrenaline flowing and ramps to a frenzy. A thriller that’s impossible to put down.”
—Chris Goff, author of Red Sky
There’s something coolly old-fashioned about thriller writer Michael W. Sherer’s latest effort, Mistaken Identity (Cutter Press). Maybe that’s because the first-half action takes place on a moving train in which characters from way-different walks of life get thrown together under crazily coincidental circumstances.
Everyone is either running from something or pursuing one of those fleeing. You know these characters will never be the same again — assuming any or all of them survive.
It’s a classic “chase story” with a British sort of feel. Nothing says “chase” like colorful characters on a moving train, whether it’s James Bond vs. Rosa Krebs on the Orient Express in Ian Fleming’s spy classic, From Russia with Love, or, in this case, troubled FBI agent Jenny Roberts and those who swarm into her orbit.
Sherer is a prolific mystery-thriller writer, and his experience shows in Jenny’s complex character development, the story pacing and the best scenes. Night Blind, one of his four books in the Blake Sanders series, was nominated for an International Thriller Writers award in 2013.
Roberts wonders if her FBI career has tanked after a former supervisor refused to back her methods in thwarting a terrorist plot in Washington and saving her partner. Now she’s on administrative leave at loose ends. Alone, confused and questioning her own skills, she decides to take a westbound Amtrak train to the small Wisconsin town where she grew up and visit her male-dominated law-enforcement family, who she hasn’t seen for years.
A purloined cellphone puts the plot in motion. Mick Costanza, a troubled Iraqi war veteran turned “fixer,” is having second thoughts about working for Benton Sykes, a despicable dude who combines discretion and blackmail threats to operate a lucrative private club where the rich, powerful and connected can do whatever suits their exotic fantasies.
After participating in the killing of an uncooperative Congressman who fell behind in debt, Mick has had enough. He takes Sykes’s phone but quickly realizes he made a huge mistake by doing so. Sykes desperately wants the phone returned because it’s the key to unlock his illicit dealings. Mick sends the phone by mail to a long-ago friend and hops on that Amtrak train in fear of his life.
NOT ONE, BUT TWO CHASES
That’s where mistaken identities start to emerge. Jenny is a look-alike for Dana Carlisle, a troubled woman who has learned about massive financial fraud at the non-profit foundation where she works. Dana fears her boss, who doesn’t know Sykes but certainly could join him as a member of the sociopathic bad-guy club. Then she witnesses the sadistic torture of Mick aboard the train, and the identity confusion leads to escalating danger for both women as they try to flee.
Eventually, Jenny connects with Dana. They leave the train and head for Wisconsin in a rental SUV pursued by everyone from Dana’s boss to Russian thugs. A final confrontation looms in the rolling hills of rural Wisconsin — a place Sherer evokes realistically and seems to know well.
It’s a thriller, not a mystery. For the most part, we know everyone’s immediate goals. Jenny needs her life back. Sykes needs his phone. Mick needs to escape. Dana needs to establish her innocence and start a fresh life.
What elevates Mistaken Identity is how Sherer invests us in the outcome of not one but two chases. There’s the conventional story about bad people pursuing good people, and you’ll want to know how it resolves. There’s a deeper journey, too. Jenny’s childhood demons and emotional baggage have chased her from her family. She’s destined to ride that train and go to Wisconsin to finish both pursuits.