Score: 93/100 (9.3 out of 10)
Pedaling West is a very interesting and ambitious novel by E.A. Coe that blends aspects of different genres, shining as a travel, thriller, crime, and detective-mystery novel.
The story follows Carrie Brinkley, a 27-year-old, recently-fired Internet Technology Manager who used to work for a restaurant joint called Pilgrim Burgers. To make matters worse, she is abandoned by her long-time boyfriend who pursues a promising career in Alabama, and she is living during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, cutting her off from most of the activities she could use as an outlet for her distress. She largely accepts that budget cuts associated with the pandemic are to blame for her losing her job, although the truth is much more sinister.
With her life seemingly falling apart, Carrie revives an old passion, cycling, and informs her dad about a wild idea she has of cycling all the way from the east end of the country to the west, thereby giving the book its name. She sees it as an opportunity to rediscover herself, gain some confidence, and explore before starting another relationship and settling down. She sees it as her last chance to just be herself and be free.
Unfortunately, the mysterious circumstances behind her firing and the unscrupulous dealings of her former boss follow her. We learn early on in the novel that Carrie's friend, Teresa Dill, the Chief Financial Officer of Pilgrims Burgers, was aware that the company's CEO, Norman Sloan, was involved in a scheme to embezzle COVID relief loans given to the company. Teresa had disclosed this scandalous information to Carrie in an e-mail right before she leaves for her trip, so Carrie doesn't open it until it's too late... Teresa is tragically murdered by an ex-con mercenary, Damien Brown, who is conspiring with his sister, Silky, and Sloan to tie the loose ends and escape with the money.
What's quite interesting about this novel as a detective-mystery is that we already know who the culprits are—Sloan, Silky, and Damien—yet the protagonists (mainly Carrie and Special Agent Hill) don't. The reading audience takes a third-person look at the chess match between all of these parties, and it actually gets quite interesting. Because you already know things that the protagonists don't, you're constantly anxious and on edge about them discovering it for themselves. It can be very frustrating, but also very tense. You can't help but want to shout to some of the characters and tell them, “He's over there!” or “She went that way!” It's kinda like watching a soft slasher movie that way. And, in that sense, Carrie is kinda like a final girl.
This also gives you the rather frustrating yet intense perspective of a detective who has a strong hunch or even knows who the killer(s) is, yet is burdened by the fourth amendment and the need to find reasonable cause to make an arrest or at least stop further harm to victims. This is an actual, real-life dilemma that law enforcement often wrestles with. It's good in that it prevents the police from abusing their power and arresting and searching everyone they want at any time. However, it is a pain in that it can prevent police from being proactive, something which often frustrates victims and those who fear they may become victims. So even when there are red flags and warning signs galore, the hands of law enforcement are tied and restricted under the law for better or for worse.
And, on that note, it's not about knowing who did it, it's about proving who did it.
So, it's extra exciting when agents like Hill go above and beyond to help stop criminals and to protect people like Cassie, even when it's out of the ordinary or above their pay grade. You can't help but cheer for that and wish there were more in law enforcement like that.
Cassie herself is a character who grew on us over time. She started off this book as rather annoying, naive, ignorant, oblivious, and weak. She constantly gets the shaft and taken advantage of people. At the same time, she seems irresponsible and reckless. We felt so bad for her dad having to let her go on this insane cross-country journey on her own. Her dad is every parent when their kid decides to jump into the deep end by themselves. We can't imagine the sleepless nights he has because of her. He even arms her to the teeth with non-lethal weapons, primarily bear spray and pepper spray. This is a dad who loves and cares about his daughter.
The thing about that is, it initially makes Cassie seem spoiled and sheltered. And, well, that's the point. We get that. At the same time, it's still frustrating that she's like this for at least half the book.
But we digress. Again, that's the point. Cassie is a character who has a lot of room (and a need) to grow and mature as a person. She's a person who needs to find her courage and independence.
We see that she's vulnerable in a lot of ways. Some of her primary fears are public speaking and snakes, two things which she is forced to confront over the course of this book. Cassie by the end of the book is a much more likable, competent, and mature person than she was in the beginning. We actually wound up liking her.
The three main villains are somewhat interesting to follow as well. What Damien does seems so abhorrent and despicable that it's impossible to sympathize with him, yet you constantly get the feeling like he's being used and having his leash yanked by his sister. Silky, arguably the main villain, seems to be a criminal mastermind at first, but even her plans have holes in them and don't go perfectly. We see her struggle to wiggle out of tight situations like when her passport plan is compromised.
And, finally, there's Sloan. What's interesting about Sloan is that he is probably the most sympathetic of the three villains even though it could be argued that he started all of this and created this whole mess. Sloan is a business owner at a time when the government is throwing “free money” at businesses to keep them afloat during one of the biggest crises in the history of the country, the pandemic. Sloan sees an opportunity to fill his pockets and possibly ensure his future and the future of his company at a time when the future seems so bleak. He is a white collar criminal, a Harvard graduate, yet he's not a seasoned criminal. He lacks street smarts. He lacks a killer's edge or instinct. He makes incompetent mistakes out of desperation and out of shear ignorance on how crime operates.
So, he actually serves as a great contrast to his former employee (and main protagonist), Cassie, who is also operating like a fish out of water and is also unsure of herself and vulnerable. Sloan's shell of invulnerability shatters very early on in this book once he realizes that the cat is out of the bag, and then when he is betrayed and blackmailed. You can't help but hate him and hope he gets caught, yet the book sometimes gives you his perspective, a perspective in which you bizarrely find yourself hoping that he succeeds to some extent.
We have to say though, there's something about this book that seems off, especially in the first 3/5ths of the book. First of all, there seems to be two separate major plots happening simultaneously: 1. The travel-adventure/self-discovery plot with Cassie going cross-country like she's Forrest Gump going on a run or Judith from Finding Grace; 2. The crime and corruption plot with Sloan, Silky, and Damien. These two plots don't always mesh well. In particularly, they make Cassie seem like a complete oblivious idiot for about half the book because all of these things are happening, and she's slow to catch on to them.
Now, oblivious idiots are a staple of a lot of stories and media. Forrest Gump is one example, and his movie is incredible. His character is compelling because his obliviousness is funny and his character is so innocent and goodhearted, unblemished by the terrible world around him.
The Road Runner from Looney Tunes constantly seems oblivious to the fact that Wile E. Coyote is constantly trying to kill him. In fact, Road Runner is very comparable to Cassie, and Wile E. Coyote is very comparable to Sloan.
In Steve Irwin's movie Collision Course, Steve Irwin's character is completely oblivious to the fact that the “bad guys” who are hunting his crocodile are actually after the super secret information from the satellite that it swallowed (or something like that, it's been a while).
In most of these shows, things are happening to the characters rather than the characters being active participants in the advancement of the plot.
Now, with that said, Cassie eventually does smarten up and get involved in doing right by Teresa and catching these terrible criminals. She still, however, has her dumb moments when she completely misses the point and starts acting like an ignoramus. Case in point: when the police have GPS placed on her bike by one of their agents at a bike shop, and Cassie still takes the time to ask the agent about her front, standing there like an idiot complimenting her on her taxidermy animals and bicycle-repairing skills, totally missing the point that she's supposed to keep this operation a secret. She's pretty much asking the agent to blow her cover just to amuse her or fulfill her morbid curiosity. It's such a Cassie thing to do.
The other thing that kept popping into our minds is how much more interesting the cycling journey is than the crime drama. For example, Cassie is attacked by a dog and later ventures into a town that is under a tornado warning. These events just seem so much more organic and natural than the crime plot does. The crime plot, by contrast, seems plotted and contrived.
With that said, the crime plot becomes morbidly funny and entertaining. Again, it almost becomes like a Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote skit. Later, it becomes like Tom & Jerry as the hunter becomes the hunted.
This book is definitely entertaining with a lot to offer.
Check it out on Amazon!