Sunday, February 21, 2016

Book Review: Move to Fire

Mike Harkins is a friend whom I met years ago when we were both freelance writers for a regional magazine. I like and respect him, and though I carried that bias into my reading of his book Move to Fire, if I didn't think it was genuinely good I simply never would have mentioned it. It's good.

Move to Fire (322 pages) is an impressive work of investigative journalism that Harkins spent years pulling together. It's the story of Brandon Maxfield, a 7-year-old boy shot through the spine and paralyzed for life when a semiautomatic handgun accidentally discharged as a family friend tried to unload it. Brandon and his family sued the gunmaker for manufacturing a defective product, and, years later, tried to buy the company at a bankruptcy auction so they could melt down its inventory of 20,000 cheap junk guns.

The case made national news. I remember it, and I remember thinking the same thing many people did: How could you argue that a gun was defective because it fired a bullet when the trigger was pulled, even if accidentally? Isn't that what a gun is supposed to do? In fact, wouldn't a gun be defective if it didn't fire when you pulled the trigger?

Harkins patiently, methodically explains why I was wrong.

As originally designed, the Bryco Model 38 was intended to be unloaded with the safety in the "safe" position, so that someone couldn't possibly fire it while unloading it. However, when that procedure was followed, the gun jammed. Rather than make an inexpensive fix to prevent jamming, gunmaker Bruce Jennings rewrote the instruction manual so that someone unloading the gun would first have to move the safety to "fire." At the very moment a user was trying to disarm the weapon, it was most vulnerable to an accidental slip of a finger to the trigger.

It would be like Ford building a new car with the brake and gas pedals reversed, then saying it wasn't their fault that people were careless enough to drive over cliffs.

The hero of the book is attorney Richard Ruggieri, who began his career working for defendants in insurance cases, representing companies against plaintiffs stricken with asbestos-related cancer. After several successful years he switched sides, partly driven by his conscience after badgering too many witnesses on their deathbeds, and his intimate knowledge of the Dark Side made him an invaluable Jedi Knight to Brandon's family. He knew all the tricks Jennings and his lawyers would use to hide their assets and evade responsibility, and dogged them relentlessly.

Favorable laws make it tough enough to win cases against gunmakers. Ruggieri's job was made magnitudes harder when the handgun that shot Brandon couldn't be found, having been lost by an earlier attorney in the case. Now he had to prove not just that one particular weapon was defective, but that the entire model line was.

The book is structured like a legal thriller, so that by the time it reaches its climactic three-part trial we know the heroes and villains and understand the stakes. Harkins draws the later chapters directly from the trial transcript, selecting passages that build on and pay off the groundwork he laid earlier.

The suspense is compelling. Harkins plays fair. Ruggieri's case has holes--not least the missing weapon--and some of his opponents' arguments are convincing. Move to Fire isn't an anti-gun screed. I found it an engrossing, well-built narrative that pulled me through, page by page. It's naturally structured like a three-act drama and ought to be a movie (in fact I believe Harkins is developing a screenplay).

Published via an Indiegogo campaign I was happy to support, Move to Fire has some flaws characteristic of self-published works, including a few typos and inconsistent usage and style. I wish a good copy editor had given it a final scrubbing before it went to press. I know first-hand how a second set of eyes can catch mistakes that the people immersed in making a book have overlooked for months.

[EDITED TO ADD: Mike tells me my copy is a first edition, and that many errors were subsequently found and fixed. Since I haven't seen newer editions I'll let my point stand as a reflection of my reading experience, with the understanding that it may be moot.]

Harkins knows these deep woods so well, and is so eager to guide readers through them, that I sometimes felt he didn't look back as often as he should have to be sure everyone was still following. Which is to say, a couple of times I got lost.

The book has a lot of technical detail about handguns: firing pins, slides, triggers, dual magazines, safeties that move up and down instead of side to side. Those details are important; the gun is practically a character itself. I would have appreciated one clear photo or diagram of it to help me understand how it worked, as well as how it failed to work.

These are nits and quibbles that don't detract from my admiration of the book. Whatever polishing it might benefit from wouldn't change its fundamental quality and accomplishments. Move to Fire is a passion project by a writer who knows how to mine facts, build characters, and use them to tell a terrific story. The fact that this writer had to mount an Indiegogo campaign to publish the sort of long-form journalism that magazines used to be proud to print is an indictment of how the field has fallen. Still, without modern crowd-financing the story might never have been told at all. I'm grateful it was.

The recent recipient of a prestigious starred review from Publisher's Weekly, Move to Fire is available on Amazon.

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