For Atticus Kodiak, professional bodyguard, the object is to keep people alive, and there is no margin for error. Dr. Felice Romero hires Atticus and his team of security specialists to protect her and her daughter, Katie. As administrator of the Women’s LifeCare Clinic, she’s accumulated a thick file of anonymous death threats. With the approach of the Common Ground Conference, designed to forge a compromise between pro-choice and pro-life groups and end violent protest, the threats have escalated in number and ugliness. Even as he defends the doctor’s right to speak, Atticus knows that protecting the doctor at the conference will be logistical nightmare. Soon it becomes not only a matter of keeping her safe during the conference, but to keep everyone, including his own team, alive until the conference.
I largely know Greg Rucka’s work as one of a group of comics writers, also including Ed Brubaker, who really brought noir sensibilities into modern superhero stories in works like Gotham Central; so going back to his first novel, I expected something noirish and interestingly crunchy. Keeper gave me one of those in spades. This review will contain SPOILERS for some major plot-points in Keeper.
The one it gave me was crunchy. This is a thriller-type novel about a man acting as a bodyguard for a woman and her daughter. So far, so mindless. But the woman is an abortion provider scheduled to speak at a conference trying to find common ground between pro-choice and anti-abortion groups, receiving death threats and in fear for her safety; the bodyguard meets her because he has just taken his girlfriend into the clinic for an abortion; and the daughter has Down’s Syndrome and is one of the best depictions of that in fiction I have ever seen. Keeper doesn’t flinch from this; while it’s clear that Rucka is himself pro-choice, Kodiak has doubts and those allow Rucka to discuss the debate around abortion. Similarly, the violence of clinic pickets and the disturbing tactics used by anti-abortion campaigners to harass and persecute abortion providers are laid out in bare and grim detail, without any sympathy for them.
That grim detail is something that carries across the whole book, but is sustained by Rucka’s emotional honesty. Keeper sees Rucka portray bigotry towards a teenage girl with Down’s Syndrome; sees racist and sexist abuse poured out at her and her mother; and, in Chapter 10, about a third of the way through the novel, in one of the most heartrending and brutal passages I have ever read, Rucka kills the girl. It’s something which has consequences for the characters and the reader that last for the rest of the book; it sets a painful, harsh and truthful tone about the realities of the situation. Emotionally, it hurts, and this reader had to stop reading for a while at the end of that chapter in order to recover; Rucka refuses to pull his punches, and it works.
Really, that’s what is at the core of Keeper; refusal to pull punches. Every character is fleshed out, human, and reacts painfully realistically to the tragic and horrendous events of the story; watching Rucka write Dr Romero as she goes through the various traumas and tragedies of the novel, and how she reacts to those around her; the humanness of her reactions to those who slip through the net Kodiak casts, but also to Kodiak and his associates, is really acutely observed and speaks to a lot of empathy and research on Rucka’s part. That Rucka doesn’t have the same sympathy for the frontman of the anti-abortion group is very clear; he is portrayed as not caring about the consequences of his words, as a fanatic perfectly willing to incite (although not participate in) violence, driven as much by misogyny as a genuine anti-abortion faith. Keeper does, in that regard, get a little close to Rucka preaching his own beliefs, but at the same time there are sympathetically written anti-abortion campaigners, and Rucka balances that reasonably well.
Keeper, for all that it isn’t a political thriller in the conventional sense, is a very political thriller. As much about the politics of abortion and the vile tactics of the anti-abortion movement in the US as it is anything else, this is a really emotionally brutal novel, and an incredibly strong debut from Rucka; it’s no surprise to see how good his later work has been if this is where he started.