The Dispatcher, by Ryan David Jahn

Article published on June 20, 2011.

The Dispatcher is the third novel by Arizona-born novelist and screenwriter Ryan David Jahn.  Jahn has received great critical acclaim and a CWA Dagger for his efforts thus far, and with this newest release has set out to further his reputation for writing that is a cut above the garden-variety thriller.

The premise is relatively simple.  Ian Hunt, a police officer now working as a 911 dispatcher, is nearing the end of his shift when he receives a panicked phone call from his daughter Maggie.  Maggie has recently been declared dead after disappearing seven years ago.  The official investigation leads to a local couple, but to get his daughter back, Ian himself must track them down.Using the murder of Kitty Genovese as the setting for his first book, Jahn has again drawn inspiration from reality for The Dispatcher.  It is hard to read without drawing parallels between Jahn’s tale and the harrowing stories of Jaycee Lee Dugard, Natascha Kampusch or the Fritzl family.   While the book is shot through with plausibility as a result of these tragedies, referencing them will mean some readers find The Dispatcher an upsetting read.  Certainly, the quality of Jahn’s writing does nothing to blunt the intense emotional response these events provoke.

Appropriately, Jahn ensures there are no heroes in the book.  None of the characters are unimpeachable good guys, including the father desperate for his daughter’s safe return.  Good guys in The Dispatcher are simply those coated in slightly less moral grime, occupying the same sliding scale as the antagonists and in essence no different from them.

The antagonists are one of the strong points of the book.  In the most recent cinematic incarnation of this father/daughter tale, Taken, the father was the focal point, a valiant crusader who drove the narrative forward with his tenacity and guile.  In The Dispatcher, the opposite is the case.  The bad guys are hateful characters, ignorant, twisted and cruel, they are repugnant distortions of humanity.  The narrative moves forward propelled not by Ian’s earnest quest but rather by the reader’s desire to see a righteous infliction of justice meted out to the villains.

This is not to say that The Dispatcher is merely an extended revenge fantasy; far from it.  While there is graphic violence in places, this is vital.  Jahn sets every scene with rapier-like powers of observation; to not extend the same to the violence would be dereliction of duty on the writer’s part.

Indeed, Jahn’s skill in creating scenes and mood is reminiscent of that Titan of American writing, Mr Stephen King.  Jahn has expertly painted a portrait of small-town American life, as King did in Salem’s Lot, It and in the opening chapters of The Stand. He superbly captures the insular and fractious mentality of the dusty and decaying little Texan settlement of Bulls Mouth.  An indolent Police Chief shows a lack of concern for due process, boredom gives rise to rampant alcoholism, length of acquaintance is taken as proof of good character, and the tiny number of inhabitants creates incestuous social circles and a sense of hopelessness.  The first half of the book is given over to creating this town.  While described on the dust jacket as a tale of a “bullet-strewn car chase,” The Dispatcher is much more.  Only in the second half does the chase element lift off, but as it does, Jahn taps expertly into the well of great American road fiction as exemplified by On the Road and The Grapes of Wrath.

For any crime fiction or thriller fans somehow able to read quicker than Stephen King can write, The Dispatcher is well worth a look.  It would be ludicrous to suggest parity between the two, but the very making of the comparison is testament to Jahn’s skill.  The book is vivid, incisive and draws very clearly on some of the greats of American literature; Jahn is definitely one to watch.

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