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Feast on The Never-Open Desert Diner'

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Mystery/thriller features quirky, oddball characters

Part of the fun in picking up a debut novel is the lack of any real frame of reference. Sure, you might be able to glean some information from a synopsis or a book jacket. Perhaps the author has other writings short fiction and the like from which you might discern a sense of style. However, the ultimate truth is that you don't really know what you're going to get. It's a roll of the dice, with all that that entails. Sometimes, you're disappointed.

And sometimes as with James Anderson's 'The Never-Open Desert Diner' you wind up a winner.

Ben Jones is an independent trucker who has carved out his own small idiosyncratic route through the Utah desert. His customers are a motley bunch, vastly different characters united by a single shared trait a love for the isolation inherent to the Southwestern badlands. However, tough times have led to fewer customers and less demand for his services. As a result, he's on the verge of going under.

But when circumstances lead Ben to discover a mysterious cello-playing woman living alone in the midst of an abandoned development out among the dunes, his life is quickly and completely thrown into chaos. Claire is fleeing some sort of darkness from her past and hiding in the desert. Despite that, a romance soon blooms between the two.

Alas, it won't be so easy. Claire's past starts catching up with her, bringing danger to the desert. And it isn't just Claire who is endangered Ben and many of his secretive customers also find themselves in dire straits.

Through it all looms the shadow of the never-open desert diner, a once-popular roadside stopover spot that played host to a horrible event that led to its being closed for business ever since. There are many stories about that event, but only a few know the whole truth.

'The Never-Open Desert Diner' is an engaging, character-driven thriller. Ben Jones is a wonderfully nuanced everyman sort of hero, a guy who isn't particularly interested in saving the day but reluctantly willing to do so. His quirky sense of loyalty makes him an engaging figure. His relationships are a wonderful window into his character his rough-and-ready back-and-forth with diner owner Walt, his gruff tenderness toward the pregnant teenager Ginny and his burgeoning romance with Claire provide an intimate portrait of the man.

The supporting players also shine; Anderson has populated his stretch of Route 117 with a colorful cavalcade of characters. There's the religious fanatic who wanders up and down the highway carrying a massive cross while between sermons. There are the desert rat brothers living in surprisingly well-appointed boxcars and sporting shadowy pasts. And of course, there's Walt, who has diverted his energies from the now-closed diner into motorcycle enthusiasm and misanthropy.

These are the people who populate Anderson's narrative. The sandy emptiness of the desert serves as an ideal setting for such a diverse crew, though one could argue that the desert itself is a character in its own right. The descriptions of that setting, lovingly rendered, are where the book's moments of poetry shine brightest.

In terms of the narrative itself, it's quite compelling; there are plenty of interesting twists and some nice red herrings throughout. It should be said that the book's ending does occasionally succumb to freneticism. While the majority of the book unspools briskly, the final pages ramp up the pace to a degree that sometimes feels distracting. However, the strong energy of that pacing largely compensates for the odd rushed moment.

Ultimately, 'The Never-Open Desert Diner' is a quality page-turner. It's the kind of thriller whose compulsive readability ensures that once you start, you'll have difficulty stopping. With quirky oddballs for characters and a beautifully rendered setting, this is a story with plenty to offer.

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