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‘The Reign of the Kingfisher’ a super read

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Superheroes have been ingrained in popular culture for nearly a century. Decades of extraordinary powers and extraordinary tales. Comic books led the way, of course, but superheroes have become key components in just about every entertainment medium, dominating televisions and especially movie screen over the past 15 years or so.

These characters and narratives benefit from being represented in a visually-oriented medium; brightly-colored costumes and superhuman feats of derring-do lend themselves well to the pages of a comic book, the animated cels of a cartoon or the CGI-powered exploits of a movie.

Meanwhile, the superhero hasn’t made the same sort of cultural inroads into the literary realm, though that too has begun to shift in recent years.

The latest effort in that direction comes from the pen of debut novelist T.J. Martinson. “The Reign of the Kingfisher” (Flatiron Books, $27.99) is a literary crime thriller, one shaded by the lengthy shadow cast by the titular Kingfisher, a largely-forgotten vigilante whose death, some three decades in the past, becomes central to a horrific murder spree in the present day.

An exploration of the dark side of superheroism, evocative of the work of comics legends like Frank Miller, the book digs deep into the ethical and moral quandaries that permeate the notion of vigilantism – costumed or otherwise – and offers a look at the consequences therein, some obvious, others less so.

For a stretch in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the streets of Chicago had a protector, a man who emerged from the shadows and punished criminals with brutal efficiency. Drug dealers and pimps and violent offenders were beaten to within an inch of their lives (and occasionally beyond) before being left bloodied and broken on the city’s sidewalks to be discovered by the authorities.

Dubbed the Kingfisher in a series of articles written by the journalist Marcus Waters, this vigilante loomed large over the Windy City, a polarizing figure either beloved or feared by those on both sides of the law. When he died in 1984, half the city turned out for his funeral.

But in many ways, the question has always lingered: did the Kingfisher actually die? And there are some willing to do whatever it takes to find out once and for all.

Hostages have been taken somewhere in Chicago. A masked perpetrator, clad in the trappings of a known hacktivist group, is releasing videos in which he demands that the powers that be own up to the truth: that the Kingfisher is still alive and that the Chicago PD faked his death. And he is willing to execute every single one of those he has taken.

It’s up to Peters, long since retired from the journalism game, to track down the truth before it’s too late. He has to plunge back into the depths of corruption and violence that swamp the city; he has a few people to help him – a disgraced soon-to-be-former police officer and a gifted young hacker first among them – but there’s no way to know if it will be enough.

The deeper he digs, the more Marcus realizes that there’s much more to the life and death of the Kingfisher than even he, the vigilante’s foremost chronicler, ever would have imagined.

And interspersed throughout, we get glimpses into the past where we can see the Kingfisher in action at the height of his powers, a man who is more than a man, yet somehow also less. He is both powerful and fragile, his violent impulses and desire for justice in constant conflict. The Kingfisher seeks to do good, but his baser instincts sometimes prevail; his superhuman exterior masks his perhaps-too-human failings.

“The Reign of the Kingfisher” will delight fans of comic books and other superheroic pop culture for sure. However, even those with no affinity for the feats of comic book heroes will find plenty to enjoy here. The truth is that Martinson has crafted a top-shelf crime thriller, one with rich characterizations, vivid settings and a twisty-turny plot. Yes, there’s a superhero here, but the book isn’t ABOUT a superhero – not really.

This is a book about the emotional fallout that comes with operating in moral gray areas. It’s about the ethical ramifications of vigilantism, about whether the ends can justify the means when it comes to crime and punishment. It’s about exploring the notion of what it really means to take the law into one’s own hands, whether that be through literal physical involvement, through the power of the pen or from the business end of a computer keyboard. What it means … and what it costs.

Too often, superheroes and their ilk are rendered with broad strokes – at best, they lack dimension; at worst, they’re slapdash caricatures. And while the Kingfisher is in many ways a bit of a cipher, that’s by design; Martinson’s true focus is on those people surrounding the hero, rather than the hero himself. It allows the basic unknowns of the Kingfisher – the whos and whys and hows – to remain just that, while still delving deep into the mystery at hand. All of this is helped along by the neopulp style and whetstone-honed tone of Martinson’s prose.

As a lover of all things superhero, “The Reign of the Kingfisher” was always going to be in my wheelhouse; the truly impressive part is that I’d have loved this book even if I wasn’t.

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