This review is subject to my disclosure notes, which you can find here.
Given how much I enjoyed Daniel Palmer’s debut, DELIRIOUS, last year, I was looking forward to reading HELPLESS. That said, I wasn’t sure I’d love it because I’m not a fan of infallible heroes, and I was afraid lead character Tom Hawkins, a former Navy SEAL, would be just that. Frankly, I also wasn’t sure a guy author would be able to capture the motivation and voice of Tom’s teenage daughter, Jill and her friends, around whom the story turns.
I need not have been concerned.
HELPLESS will appeal to different readers for different reasons. For parents, it’s a cautionary tale about the aspects of what kids can get up as they tap away on tiny keyboards, and the devastating implications their communication can have. For those amongst us who eschew the online universe, it’s testament to the importance of paying attention to what people are saying about you online. For those interested in what the FBI really does on a daily basis, it’s a fascinating look into their Innocent Images National Initiative. And for those who just love crime fiction and throat-grabbing thrillers, it’s the whole package.
HELPLESS is far from a simple story, but it is in no way difficult to follow. It follows what happens to Tom when his bland suburban existence is fractured by his ex-wife’s murder, which brings secrets from his military past back to the fore as he endures an online attack that graphically accuses him of horrible crimes against the kids whose soccer team he coaches.
As in DELIRIOUS, it’s unclear until the very end who the bad guys are here. The know-it-all teens? The old friend from his SEAL days? The mysterious stranger? The town cop? All of the above?
One of the things that made Tom most believable for me was that when his reputation is attacked, he is truly and genuinely shocked. His distress comes in part because he can’t believe someone would say such things about him, but it’s also because he is confronted with the reality that when this happens, there’s not a whole heck of a lot he can do. It’s not like the old days, when someone posted a nasty flyer on the school bulletin board and all one had to do was take it down.
Before reading HELPLESS I also had no idea that the FBI’s Innocent Images Initiative even existed, never mind what it does. It’s very real—I’ve been lucky enough to work with Daniel and have had the opportunity to speak with folks at the FBI—and their work is accurately described in the story, but more importantly to readers, the subplot Palmer creates around this aspect of the story adds layers to HELPLESS that make it immeasurably richer.
Palmer also captures both the trepidation and bravado of kids today. We all remember worrying that someone won’t like us. The world might have changed, but that has not. But today, bullying has so many more forms than it did way back when. I also found Tom’s relationship with Jill fascinating. For much of the story, Tom seems afraid of his daughter, constantly asking her rather than telling her. Very different from my relationship way back when with my single dad.
HELPLESS has already gotten a bunch of rave reviews, and each is well deserved. This is a page-turner, to be sure, a story that races along and leaves you breathless.
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