BOOK CRITICAL: XXX Shamus by Red Hammond

A couple weeks back I read XXX Shamus by Red Hammond and it was… Well… It was something alright.

I’ll start this response off with the way the book started off. In the first couple of pages before the actual story started, the author, Red Hammond, wrote 2-page note about how his book had been banned from Amazon for being too provocative or extreme. I remember when I purchased this book from AWP 2018, the gentleman sitting at the table also told me this book had been banned from Amazon. Now that didn’t necessarily entice me more. Generally, I don’t believe people when they make claims like that (unless they have proof), and I especially don’t believe it when it’s obvious the book is trying to be edgy and I feel like that’s what XXX Shamus had been attempting from the start.

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The novel is built upon an edgy idea and everything inserted into the storyline is an attempt to be edgy — not for story building purposes or reasons that make sense, but because “let’s see how angry or uncomfortable we can make people.” I read this book a couple weeks ago now, so I’ll try to remember the major points and why they didn’t connect with me.

And prefacing this with: I wasn’t offended by any of the things I’m about to mention. I, personally, have so many characters and story types that cover different tough or taboo subjects, but what bothers me is using edgy topics or tropes as a way to garner attention like you’re some kind of “super bad, super tough” person. I want a story to make sense, elements to be introduced because they have to be to make sense of the story and what Hammond did was take the edgiest, borderline issues he could think of and toss them all at Hopper, the MC. It doesn’t help that he markets this book by saying he was banned for writing too many taboo subjects.

Bro, I remember in university, my professors praised this book that was all about some gay kid being raped by literally everyone he met in his life, including a group of monks, eventually meeting someone he liked, then killing himself. I dunno. Great literature or stories in general can touch on taboo. To say you’re being dissed because you’re too edgy just seems like a democrat style cop-out like, “It’s because I’m a woman!” So with that said, let’s talk about some things:

Thing 1: Incest

The novel is set up so Hopper is under the control of his older sister. When he was younger, she sort of forced herself upon him, they had sex, he helped him discover sexuality when he was young (was it single digit?) and continued to it into adulthood. Every time she calls, Hopper is at her side while complaining under his breath about how he doesn’t want to see her or how he can’t stand here.

There’s plenty to play with here that’s so insanely complex. There’s sex addiction, which I’ll talk about in a bit because Hopper shows signs of sex addiction. There’s some Stockholm syndrome, there’s a fear of rejection, there’s a fear of women, there’s this disoriented view of himself where he is powerless against his sister, but he’s this big, strong man who could overpower her. At one point when he goes to visit, he doesn’t want to sleep with her and she pins him down. I’m sorry, but in the real world, a woman cannot pin a grown man down, especially when you’ve made it so obvious how beefy your character is. So if he was pinned down and stayed down, it’s either because some part of him thinks he deserves it, he has an inferiority complex and lets it happen, or he actually wants it to happen but says otherwise because he knows it’s wrong. Any of those options would allow for a very deep analysis into a broken mind, but Hammond doesn’t do any of them.

Instead, Hopper comes off more psychotic, indecisive, and fake. He doesn’t really want to say no to his sister, but he feels like he has to because it’s not right and that’s about as far as we get. I got tired of hearing him complain about how much he hated his sister, yet every time she called, he drove to her house. She didn’t even come to him. All she ever did was leave a voicemail saying, “I want to see you.” Then Hopper would complain and show up every time. There was no reason other than to keep the incest going and I say there was no reason because nothing was ever explored — and he wasn’t in love with his sister because he said he was in love with his secretary the whole time.

Thing 2: Sex Addiction

I’ll mention this one second because it kind of plays a major role in the story. At the beginning of the novel, Hammond mentioned how noir/PI stories typically have some kind of super suave dude who gets all the sex and solves the crime and what he wanted to do with this was, instead of skipping the sex scenes, play through them and see the toll that takes out of Hopper. As you’d expect when someone’s banging all the chicks he runs into, he gets very tired. At one point he can’t get it up and then his sister makes fun of him.

This would have been an interesting thing to actually explore. He states it early on that he’s unable to say no to sex when a woman asks. This, in turn, makes the relationship he wants with his secretary hard because he cannot remain faithful — but she’s also sleeping with other guys so it doesn’t really matter that much except for end game that’s not what Hopper wants. Throughout the book, different women leverage power over him by sleeping with him. A sixteen (or was she fourteen?)-year-old girl at the beginning gets him to kiss her for information. He massively harms another woman who wanted to have sex with him by using oil as lube. His secretary tells him not to do the porno he sets up later, but he lies to her and does it anyway, resulting in major trouble for them all. Sex addiction ruins lives, but it’s never actually explored as sex addiction. It’s kind of more like he’s a stud and the writer wanted to put more scenes of sex in his novel.

This reflected worse for me when we never delved deeper into Hopper’s character. He thought of himself as a study muffin, describing himself with a lot of confidence on a few different occasions, including ripping the door open to his secretary’s roommate and describing his dick is as big as “a radioactive horse’s.”

He had a mixture of high confidence because he knew he was a big, attractive dude and low confidence because he thought he looked like a nerd and he was afraid of women, but neither made sense because they didn’t add to his character, plot, or individual growth which made them nothing but a ploy.

Thing 3: Fear of Women

You don’t see this in a lot of stories: a fear of women in the male main character and so I would have enjoyed it to see this used in the story, but it only seemed to be used sometimes. He was clearly afraid of his sister and considering their relationship, right, that doesn’t mean he would have been afraid of all women. However, later in the story, one of the people he goes after for information on a missing girl intimidated him into having sex with her, part can’t say no because of sex addiction, part feeling helpless. That was their first interaction. Their second interaction he went hardcore, smash her hand with a stapler, though there was no reason (in character development), that he should have shifted so fast.

I think a majority of his sex addiction could have been accredited to a fear of women and how he didn’t want or think he could say no and that had to do with how his sister held power over him since they were young. He couldn’t tell her no growing up, he couldn’t tell her no now, and so every woman in his life became this authority figure.

Yet, the fear of women thing was nothing more than a convenient plot device whenever Hammond found use for it so it felt cheap.

Thing 4: Rape

During the story, there was a section where Hopper referred to a time he was raped by a man. Throughout the novel we see him raped by women, mostly his sister and then at one point, the bad guy rapes him with her glass dildo and is about to have her male counterpart go at him when they get interrupted.

The rape wasn’t used to deepen the character, again, or move the plot forward, or do anything for any of the characters. It was used as a ploy to be shocking and later, as a ploy to push his secretary away and end the novel. I say this because, in the scene where he was raped by the bad guy, his secretary had been captured and raped by the bad guy’s male counterpart. Following the rape, his secretary pretty much never talks to him again, and by the end of the novel, she disappears into France somewhere. This rape scene is pretty much the last time we hear from her.

Neither of their characters change.

Referring to the time the man raped him earlier on, Hopper says in thought that he enjoyed it, but that conversation is left there and never revisited. Then you’ve got his sister raping him when he was a child and continuing to rape him as an adult — but this is never addressed. When rape is involved and not used honestly with the characters and does not reflect in their personalities when it happens, it feels cheap, shallow, and again, like a shock ploy.

Whether Hopper is raped by the man earlier, his sister, or the man/woman combo later in the book, neither him nor his secretary experience a character change or growth. His partner never speaks again and runs away, and he practically has sex with his secretary’s roommate.

I can’t help but feel like so many bad things are brought onto Hopper so you feel bad for him because he’s really not a good or likable guy in any sense of the word. I’m a firm believer that an MC doesn’t have to be likable, but they have to offer something of interest and Hopper just has nothing to offer. So… You rape him, because who wouldn’t feel bad for a rape victim, right? This also leads me to the closing part of the book which makes him even less likable.

Thing 5: “Romantic” Stalking

Hopper’s secretary goes to Las Vegas with him while he’s tracking a girl. She knows he’s working, but she’s under some self-influenced spell that they can go together and do couply things despite him working. His working of the case leads them to be raped, she doesn’t talk to him, leaves a letter that says she needs space and don’t try to find her. At the end of the novel, he makes a couple of deals with some dastardly people in order to get miniscule information on where his secretary is so he can track her down.

I’m not sure if this is supposed to be romantic or creepy. I can’t say what Hammond was thinking, I do remember reading in an interview that he thought the ending was sad, but he heard readers saying it was a happy ending. Let me tell you why I think it’s creepy more than anything: he makes some very dangerous, very illegal deals to get information on a girl who fled the country to get away from him. The book closes with him talking about how his job is to find missing girls and how he will go to France and find his secretary. He says he’s in love with her, but this is actually international stalking.

It’s not cute. When I went to goodreads, I was surprised to find how many people loved his character… he was a terrible, shallow character, not because the material wasn’t there, but because the material was never explored, his character didn’t learn or change, and in the end, he was a bad guy without ever realizing he was a bad guy — which is interesting in itself, but all the other faults of the book hide this.

Thing 6: Abortion

If you didn’t think this book was just trying to be edgy, you know you’ve hit it when in the last twenty or thirty pages, abortion and the use of fetuses for scientific purposes is brought up. Abortion is a major hot-button issue and if you haven’t pissed someone off with incest, sex addiction, stalking, and rape yet, well, abortion is how you do it, lol.

 

So earlier in the book, Hopper takes a man from the case he’s chasing to an old mentor of his. The mentor shoots off the guy’s leg then proceeds to torture and punish him until death because he was a perpetrator of minors working in porn (the girl he’s going after is sixteen and working in porn). Near the end of the book, the man calls and says since he did a favor for Hopper, he’d like to be repaid for it now. They meet at a bar and he tells Hopper how he is developing Parkinson’s and he wants to be frozen for a few years until a cure for Parkinson’s exists, but in order to do that, he needs some stem cells from fetuses. First, he suggests Hopper break into an abortion clinic and steals them, then he mentions convincing some woman to get an abortion, then he mentions, “If you bring me a pregnant chick, I’ll do the rest.”

Well, I forgot to mention to you earlier, Hopper’s sister lied to him about being on the pill or whatever in order to trick him into getting her pregnant. She wants the baby for whatever reason. So, Hopper goes to his sister with a bottle of drugged up diet coke. He’s sweet and charming to her when she passes out, he takes her to the old mentor to scrape out the fetus and eventually kill her.

However… The old mentor sees how beautiful Hopper’s sister is and has other plans for her. This leads me into the edgelord finale.

Thing 7: Real Life Sex Dolls

Rather than offing the sister, the mentor decides that he’d like to give her a lobotomy and keep her as a mindless, living sex doll for a while. Hopper is rightly disgusted but threatened out of the house. He comes back in the morning, earlier than expected, fights the old mentor and sets the house on fire to kill him. He carries off his still living sister and takes her home with the promise to take care of her until she’s at full health again… and then he’ll chase after the secretary he’s “so in love with.”

This book was such a bummer because I’m always looking for books that hit the taboo or do weird or strange or insanely dark things. This book had a lot of interesting elements, it definitely pushed the boundary on what normal writers write about, however, none of the elements connected, none of them were used to build the story and I didn’t get to see hopper grow (for better or for worse). Instead, I just saw different taboo subjects tossed into a pot and stirred in an attempt to be “too edgy for Amazon.”

All I want is for the story elements to make sense and this book is a revision or two away from just that, including Hopper’s obvious love for his sister — which is fine. He’s a broken man and I want to see the broken, dangerous, disaster that is his relationship with his sister. There’s a certain type of venom in their relationship that could be tragic to see him give up his secretary if she had loved him, for the twisted “love” and comfort of his sister who he almost killed, but obviously couldn’t.

There are so many great, disgusting ideas here that could have been tied together to make Hopper’s character seem like a genuinely broken man, but instead, he’s just a puppet of the author in an attempt to shock and appall and that’s where I was disappointed.

Thanks for the bizarre and Dark, Red, but this falls flat because the elements couldn’t connect and now I’m left with a shallow noir, a terrible main character with no redeemable qualities, and really, a book with no characters I want to see succeed because I just don’t care about any of them.

Good luck with the next novel. Despite how harsh this sounds, I hope you keep pushing the envelope because we need more people who write outside the box.

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