Choke Hold – Christa Faust

4 out of 5

HCC-104

With her first Angel Dare novel at Hard Case Crime, Money Shot, Christa Faust thrillingly navigated her lead – porn starlet turned porn starlet manager Dare – into the noir world of double-crosses and shootouts; violence and not-in-front-of-cameras sex. It felt like Faust occasionally forced the intensity at points, as though thinking the ante should be upped to appear on a pulp imprint, but it most importantly gave its lead characters a good sense of depth, and the specifics of the story really worked well.

So it’s good to return to the life of Dare, as she’s earned our interest, and in the years between Money Shot and Choke Hold, Faust has decided she no longer has to play to potential genre guidelines: Choke Hold is slick as ice throughout, with the story flow and the action and drama and sex all gelling together seamlessly, pitched at the right level for the story and keeping us in tune the whole while. Which is good, since the entire book is almost a chase, from the moment a shoot out happens in the diner in which Dare is working – under a new identity, some background she’ll catch us up on later – through when she partners up with one of the targets of that shootout – former boyfriend “Thick Vic”‘s son, Cody – and goes on the run from various gangsters, side-stepping into the world of MMA in the same way Money Shot worked the porn industry.

While this latter bit may seem like a lame attempt to tap into one of the zeitgeists of the time (2011), Faust doesn’t overdo it at all: we’re educated on the lifestyle as an outsider, from Dare’s perspective, and she doesn’t have the time to or interest in learning much more than whatever’s contextually exchanged between Cody and his fellow fighter / friend, Hank. What I especially appreciated was the glance at the protein-centric menu the two eat, and the name-dropping of various pills they used for weight and muscle management; often, when writers include this stuff, they lean too much on assumption about steroids and bro diets, but Faust writes this glimmers with the taint of having been actually exposed to how these people probably live. It’s all peripheral, but adds to the lived-in weight of the characters and their world, bringing back that skill from Money Shot, and marrying it to a much stronger story.

And because Dare is further removed from porn at this point, it also helps to prevent one of Shot’s other flaws: the way Faust somewhat pranced around her (or Dare’s) take on the industry. Interestingly, by addressing it less directly, the thoughts that are expressed on the matter in Choke Hold cut deeper; more worthy of contemplation. (For example, a scene in which Dare exchanges a blowjob for a favor with a former industry associate hits hard – Dare comes across as a much more emotionally complex character in this book.)

The only real hitch with the book is that it has something of a villain problem. In part because Faust needs to save some pieces for a reveal, it never feels like we have a central baddie to focus on, or root against. This isn’t necessarily required, but unfortunately, the bad guys – and there are (I believe) – three different groups of them, all become rather faceless; I always had to take a second to figure out which group was chasing them at which point, and whether or not they were actually a threat. I’d say this confusion is partially purposeful, in order to add to the harried pace of things, but it crossed a line to breaking my immersion at points.

The momentum always picks back up, though, and the choreography of the chase / action sequences is tight – very exciting stuff.

It seems like Faust has switched over to novelizations in recent past, which I have less interest in (and HCC’s comics, which unfortunately haven’t done much for me), but Choke Hold definitely makes me want to dig into her bibliography a bit more, and it definitely makes me want to see more Angel Dare.