Cries of the Lost by Chris Knopf
Over the years, I’ve grown somewhat interested in the mechanics of the creative process. This is not to say that I’ve abandoned continuing thought about the craft of writing prose, but it seems to me that great prose is of little value unless it’s put in service of a great plot. Although the style can carry readers a lot of the way, long-term interest only comes when the substance of the story itself is strong. In my early days, of course, publishers restricted most writers to shorter books, i.e. six gathers of thirty-two pages was the norm, and the majority of books were stand-alones. Today, authors are encouraged to spread themselves and publishers see more bucks in series. If the first book sells well, there’s a built-in fan base for the next. So, for the author, the nature of the creative process has been forced to evolve from relatively small capsules of inventiveness, to major streams of invention spreading over multiple longer books. Authors must plan a plot capable of sustaining the narrative from page one in the first book to the last page in the second book. Even given such a starting point, it may well be necessary to restructure the plot of the second book on the hoof if the publisher has been generous enough to give the author a three book contract. That way there’s a bridge established to carry us over into the third book.
Why is this detailed planning required? Because if all the author does is recycle the same plot over two or three books, the fan base will rapidly grow bored and the contract will not be extended. I’ve seen many series crash and burn in this way. That’s why the second book is too important to leave to chance. You have to know where the plot is going to go before you start. So here we have Cries of the Lost by Chris Knopf (The Permanent Press, 2013). The first book, Dead Anyway, introduced us to Arthur Cathcart. Think of him as a mild-mannered researcher who has a happy marriage with Florencia. Then it all ends with a professional hit. Sorry. . . a less than professional hit because, although his wife dies, Arthur survives being shot in the head. Now what’s a man to do? Someone has just executed him and his wife. He has absolutely no idea why this should have happened but one thing is certain. If the killers believe he’s still alive, they are likely to come back for a second shot. That forces him to “die” officially. From this position of relative security, he’s able to plan a survival strategy financially and physically. On the way, he meets Natsumi Fitzgerald who’s still with him when this second book gets underway.
This leaves our author with the problem of how to continue the story. The answer here is a particularly pleasing inversion of expectation. The best way to characterise the first book is a roller-coaster ride which reaches a very appropriate ending which would give Arthur and Natsumi the chance to cash in their chips and live a quiet life together at an undisclosed location. Except, of course, that would not make for an exciting plot development. So Arthur honed his skills as a researcher and now he has the chance to look into the life of the now deceased Florencia. Who was she and why had she decided to turn to a life of crime? This should be relatively simple. In his digging through the various offshore accounts, he’s discovered a box being held by a bank on Grand Cayman. So our happy couple decide to go and recover whatever has been hidden inside. Unfortunately, they have forgotten their classical mythology because this proves to be Pandora’s Box and, once opened, the wind blows them to different parts of the world.
As a plot, this is a trail of bread crumbs (sorry, I switched from mythology to Hansel and Gretel courtesy of the Brothers Grimm without putting up warning lights). We move from country to country, following sequential clues to Florencia’s identity and her motives for becoming a criminal. Needless to say, each step on the way becomes more dangerous than the last. This challenges them to find a way of cutting the Gordian knot without dying in the process (sorry, switched back to classical mythology). As a thriller, Cries of the Lost is hugely enjoyable. The prose is a joy to read with hardly a word surplus to requirements as we hurtle through to another moment of calm reflection at the end. Only one thing is certain. This bubble of idyllic happiness is bound to be punctured to send us into another turn around the block. From my point of view, the next in the series can’t come quickly enough.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.