The Ascent by Adam Plantinga Review

The Ascent by Adam Plantinga is the prototypical modern crime thriller. It’s lean, mean, and action-filled without a single wasted sentence, like experiencing the Die Hard films in prose.

The Ascent introduces Kurt Argento, a basically good, honest Detroit police officer, but a man still reeling over the recent death of his wife and full of rage with a penchant for annoying authority figures. After doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, his superiors charge him with insubordination and force him into retirement. With nothing holding him in Detroit, along with his dog, a Chow-Shepherd mix named Hudson, Argento embarks on a cross-country trip to the West Coast to see the Pacific Ocean.

He stops for the night in a small Missouri town called Rocker. With nothing better to do, he takes in the Rocker Summer Festival event the next day before leaving town. At the festival, he observes a pervert attempting to sexually assault a young girl. Not one to observe a wrong without making it right, Argento takes out a little of his anger on the pervert, a man named Donny Rokus, beating him to an unconscious pulp. When deputies arrive at the scene and question Argento, to his surprise, they show no interest in taking a statement or even his contact information from him. Instead, the deputies suggest he immediately leave town. But they don’t go into detail about why they think it’s such a good idea.

Unfortunately, Argento doesn’t take their advice and waits a little too long to leave town. A sheriff’s department patrol car pulls him over and Argento meets Sheriff Rokus, the pedophile’s older brother. Rokus and another deputy administer a beat down to Argento, arrest him, and jail him on trumped-up charges of resisting arrest and assaulting a law enforcement officer. Things quickly go downhill from there. Sheriff Rokus ships Argento to a privately run state penitentiary in the town to spend the weekend while he awaits arraignment. Argento’s luck gets even worse. During intake, the private prison systems experience catastrophic failures, including loss of internal and external communication and electronically controlled doors opening that give dangerous inmates the run of the prison. Argento suddenly finds himself locked inside a cage filled with murderous predators. The inmates begin roaming and hunting for victims. Making the stakes even higher, there are innocents visiting the prison the inmates want to lay hands on. It’s up to Argento to save the day if he or other innocents intend to leave the stricken, understaffed prison alive.

I first learned of Adam Plantinga when I heard a favorite author who hosts a podcast interview him shortly before the release of Plantinga’s debut crime thriller, The Ascent. Plantinga immediately piqued my interest when I learned from the interview that he is a serving San Francisco police patrol sergeant. There are a handful of authors without law enforcement experience, mostly former crime beat newspaper reporters like Michael Connelly, who write compelling and authentic crime fiction I enjoy. But in the realms of authenticity and vividly realistic prose, it’s hard to beat an author who is or once was a police officer. I grew up reading Joseph Wambaugh novels long before I began my career in law enforcement. And now, after spending over twenty years in the profession, I understand the cop life, cop speak, and especially the gallows humor civilians could never understand. Take the word of someone who knows, The Ascent is as authentic as it gets.

Interestingly, the primary setting of this book is the inside of a prison. It’s interesting for two reasons. First, as I read this book, I felt pretty sure as a cop and before writing the book, Plantinga knew no more than I do about what goes on inside a penitentiary. Once a convicted criminal goes to prison, the police are usually through with them. Detectives sometimes visit prisons to interview inmates about crimes they may have been involved in besides those that sent them to prison. But a patrol officer’s experience with incarceration is usually limited to municipal and county jails. So, it’s obvious to me that Plantinga did some very thorough research because of the realistic description he gives of prison life, and especially about the conditions inside privately run prisons. Coincidentally, I recently researched extensively a privately-run prison in Arizona for one of my own books. That’s how I know how authentic Plantinga’s descriptive narrative is all the way down to electronically controlled doors malfunctioning and sometimes opening when they shouldn’t. That really happens with some of the same results mentioned in this novel.

What makes us choose to read crime thrillers like this one? Is it curiosity? The opportunity to witness or experience terrifying situations from the comfort and safety of our favorite reading chair? Or is it a fascination with the question of what goes on in the minds of criminals? Why do they do what they do? That brings me to the second thing I find interesting about Plantinga’s choice of a prison as the major setting for his novel. A penitentiary and its inhabitants is truly a microcosm that encapsulates the society that we all live in.

We would all prefer to believe that if people like those Plantinga describes in his novel even exist (which most people hope they do not) then at least we believe they must all be locked safely behind bars somewhere. Unfortunately, as any cop can tell you, that isn’t true. Something I learned quickly when I became a cop is the vast majority of civilians, just as I once did, live under an illusion of safety. Not only are there people like Plantinga describes inhabiting prisons, but plenty are also living in the same cities and walking the same streets as the rest of us. Predators seeking prey. As one of my field training officers once remarked, if civilians knew what cops know, they would never leave their homes and that still might not save them. He wasn’t wrong. That’s why I can only laugh whenever I hear some foolish person or self-styled activist group advocating for defunding the police. I’m sorry to be harsh, but those who do that are complete morons with no clue about the kind of society they live in. Those who believe we should abolish the police are encouraged to spend a few days in Juárez across the Rio Grande from El Paso. It’s not that distant from anywhere in the country. That way, they would gain some useful firsthand experience with what it’s like to live in a society without functioning law enforcement. Of course, it’s unlikely that they would survive to return home after even a few days in Juárez, or at least they wouldn’t return whole. But I think their perspective on the need for cops in society would change dramatically. Without the police, the predators would have no obstacles at all.

Now, back to the book specifically. What I find atypical about this novel is the duplicity of our protagonist, Kurt Argento. On one hand, he is a diamond in the rough, risking all to save victims and serve justice. But few people that encounter him know that his motives are not entirely pure. He seeks violence as an outlet for his pent-up rage. We can only feel good about it because he targets individuals worthy of the violence he visits upon them. And that provides the basis of our engagement with him and our willingness to view him sympathetically.

Make no mistake. The violence depicted in The Ascent is not just conceptual. There are stomach-churning scenes that are graphically depicted. Once the shocking gore truly ramps up though, Plantinga has already ensured that the reader is engaged by Kurt Argento’s keen intellect, resourcefulness, and traumatic backstory. What I think makes the story so compelling is Argento’s hyper-awareness of how wrong his compulsions and actions are, his ongoing battle to control his anger and urges for violence so as not to hurt those who don’t deserve it, along with his fear of being exposed for who he truly is.

The Ascent reminds me much of the early Bruce Willis Die Hard movies. I see many similarities between the John McClane (Bruce Willis) and the Kurt Argento characters. This novel is perfect for crime thriller fans looking for nail biting suspense and nonstop action from the first sentence to the very end. There are few books these days that I find I can’t (or won’t) put down after beginning to read, but this is one of them. I hope this is only the first in a Kurt Argento series because I certainly want to read more from the talented and skillful storyteller Adam Plantinga.

I purchased the copy of The Ascent used for this review, which represents my honest opinions. Grand Central Publishing, an imprint of the Hachette Book Group, released The Ascent on January 02, 2024 and it’s available from all booksellers.

Book rating: ★★★★★

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