The question for consideration in this review is what makes a good thriller. I’m going to avoid the usual bland litmus test which asks merely whether the content of the novel thrills. Judging a creative work by the amount of adrenaline the reading activity produces is somewhat superficial. It’s like saying a tennis match between the world’s top two players is simply a demonstration of how to apply testosterone in the pursuit of victory. The experience of watching a game between two evenly-matched exponents is the satisfaction of seeing something done well. Although they may sometimes hit the ball hard, there are the angles to calculate, the spin to impart, and the subtlety of deception to engage in. Games involve the mind as well as the body. So it is with novels. A thriller cannot truly thrill unless it also engages the mind of the reader. This is done through the strength of the characters and the ingenuity invested in the creation of the situations in which they find themselves. Indeed, in the very best thrillers, the reader cares about the characters and not only wants them to survive, but also to prosper in the long term. Real world outcomes are never as neat and tidy as in the routine thriller. People still have to get up the next morning and deal with all the problems arising from the last three-hundred or so pages of action.
One of my all-time favourite thrillers is Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household. Written on the cusp of World War II, it deals with a man who has spent his life hunting. He wonders what it would be like to hunt a man and so, to test himself, he stalks a “European dictator”. Naturally, he’s intercepted and caught. When he escapes, he finds himself stalked. If the book stopped at this level, it would not have become a classic. The reason it transcends time is because it examines the motivation of the man and peels away layers of self-deception. While he may physically hide from the man hunting him, there’s no place he can hide in his own mind. It’s a remarkably intelligent piece of writing which both produces the thrills and satisfies the mind of the reader.
A Billion Ways to Die by Chris Knopf (The Permanent Press, 2014) sees us back with Arthur Cathcart and Natsumi Fitzgerald, the dead guy and the blackjack dealer now in their third outing. The critical challenge for anyone writing a series is to allow the characters to grow as the plot develops over the length of the series. The problem is the features that first made the characters so interesting may slowly be lost as they respond to different situations and stimuli. We readers may be bored if the evolution is too small or not inherently plausible, or the characters may change so much we may no longer empathise with them. The craft of writing is therefore about managing change. The situational contexts will change to preserve novelty, but the ways in which the characters change must remain relatively small-scale and credible. So when Arthur was shot in the head, he should have died. When he survived, he embraced the official status and dropped off the grid. The first book was therefore about survival. The second book saw him become more proactive in trying to discover what had prompted his wife to become involved in criminal activity. Now the past is beginning to catch up with him. He upset people in the first and second books. The US government is also interested. So wherever they go, they are hunted.
As Household told us back in 1939, the experience of being hunted by people who want to kill you, forces some degree of introspection. In this instance, it’s not at all obvious who the hunters are. More puzzlingly, it’s not at all obvious what they want except that it seems to involve a rather larger sum of money. Not unnaturally, Arthur’s accumulated savings are not counted in the billions. He’s therefore unable to answer the questions of the people who catch him and Natsumi. The rest of the book is a modern classic of a couple and then a man who must decide how he wants to live his death. It would be good to be acknowledged as being alive again, but that’s going to bring its own raft of problems. If he’s a target now, what will happen if he officially surfaces again? Conversely, if he stays off the grid, how is he going to protect himself and those he loves? The answers give are compelling as we learn yet more fascinating details about how someone really would set about hiding billions of stolen money. This is particularly elegant. Overall, it’s got everything you would want to find: a pacy plot, a beautifully constructed puzzle for our protagonist to solve, and characters that feel real. Inevitably, there are one or two flaws about two-thirds of the way through, but they are so minor that you’re likely to conclude A Billion Ways to Die is probably the best straight thriller you’re going to read in 2014 (what’s left of it). However, once you realise this is the third in a series and many series have a less readable third book, the true worth of this book emerges. It’s one of my top third books in a thriller series over the last five years!
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
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.
In the dim and distant past, I had some passing acquaintance with the practice of law and, cursed with some understanding of how legal affairs are actually conducted, I always approach books about legal eagles with some degree of scepticism. In a recent posting on the excellent Locus site, Cory Doctorow enlarged on his consistent frustration when science fiction movies fail to represent the “reality” of science. The main question when you read a book or see a film, is whether you want the content to have the characteristics of a documentary, i.e. to communicate a real understanding of the world or the people in it, or is fiction inherently unrealistic, peddling dreams, showing us the world as authors think we want to believe in? So, just as our stereotype of laboratories is one of these chromium-steel plated, Swedish minimalist spaces where product placement experiments are performed, courtrooms are full of drama with lawyers jumping up and down shouting, “Objection”, witnesses cowering under cross-examination, juries looking attentive and judges pounding their gavels for the Hell of it. As if!
This makes Ice Cap by Chris Knopf (Minotaur Books, 2012) such a joy. It has a lawyer essentially acting like a PI, working out of a converted bedroom as an office, and never actually setting foot in anything approximating a courtroom. This is a major breakthrough and should be copied by all authors who currently choose to believe lawyers lead exciting lives in their offices and feel an adrenaline rush every time they breathe the same air as a judge and jury. Chris Knopf has the right idea. You abandon pretence and write a thriller PI novel where a person who can actually think investigates a murder. For the record, this is the third outing for this lawyer cum investigator, the first two being Short Squeeze and Bad Bird.
As a headline, this is a great book. It’s written in a highly engaging style, full of sly wit and telling phrases. So, even before you get to think about the substance of the content as a legal thriller-style murder investigation, you have the simple pleasure of reading some excellent prose. As to the mystery itself, it starts out with the advent of winter in the sub-Armageddon style — full Armageddon would never dare fall on the rich folk who live in the Hamptons. As you will understand, this is not a minor dusting of snow. This is major and prolonged precipitation. As is always the case, the telephone rings with the desperate voice of a client, Franco Raffinni, asking for urgent hand-holding. This takes our heroine out on to the road.
At this point, we need to break the rhythm of the review by briefly talking about a man writing a first-person narrative with a female protagonist. Meet Jackie Swaitkowski, a person who likes stimulants, mostly in the form of alcohol but with the occasional reference to pot when, for professional purposes, she needs to remind herself of the smell — just think of the embarrassment should she be with a client smoking something without a prescription when there’s a drug raid. Anyway, apart from worrying about her clothes, this is the usual PI who’s a bit of a slob, shoots back when guns are fired and is not averse to a little sexual activity when the opportunity arises. She’s a bit like V I Warshawski including the odd trip to the opera and, to my male eye, I saw no problems with the gender shift in the writing.
As to the plot, this is a classic case where all the evidence seems to point to our heroine’s client but, if that’s the case, why are there two different sets of muscle threatening her? Why is she supposed to allow her client to go down for a murder he so obviously committed and not investigate? The answers (note the plural) are ingenious with a whole can of worms emerging from the various snow drifts when swept aside by a sufficiently powerful plough (driven with élan by another woman who appears on the scene called Dayna Red). I thought the way in which justice was seen to be done was particularly pleasing — particularly since we never actually had to test any of the evidence in court (some of that evidence would clearly not be admissible).
Overall, Ice Cap is an unpretentious fun read with a first class mystery to solve. If you enjoy attorneys literally fighting for their clients as told by an author who’s obviously enjoying himself in the writing, this is a book for you to treasure.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
I suppose, as one character said in a recent film, there’s really only ever been one plot that just gets endlessly recycled. The authors change the names and locations, and then get on with the craft of retelling. Without straining a muscle in my brain, I think it starts with “Shit happens!” and then we spend the rest of the plot finding out how everyone reacts. Some live. Some die. Some are lucky get laid before they die. Some get laid after they die — I suppose that makes it unlucky for the surviving relatives to discover the body of their loved one has been desecrated or lucky for the dead one because he or she discovers heaven is real and full of available partners. No matter how the sex thing works out, that pretty much sums up Dead Anyway by Chris Knopf (Permanent Press, 2012) and a pretty damn fine plot it turns out to be. Or, to put it another way, even though the plot may not be the most original on the planet, some authors can take it and turn out a really great book.
So here comes a little of the fine detail. Imagine a routine day. Your wife is getting herself up and dressed, ready to go off to work at the insurance agency she has built up into an impressive business. You are lounging around before making a start on your own work. You’re a somewhat obsessive, computer person who finds things out through your research skills. You go out for a walk. When you get back to the house you discover your wife’s car outside. Inside the house, you find a man with a gun. He asks your wife to write down the answers to five questions. She does so. Then the man shoots both of you in the head.
Much to your surprise, you wake up in hospital. The bullet passed through the brain and out through the skull. It did some damage but not enough to kill you. Fortunately, your sister is a doctor and continues the fiction you’re in a coma. In private, you start to exercise both physically and mentally. More importantly, you start to plan. This was obviously a professional hit. Since you had done nothing to justify this level of retaliation, it had to be something connected to your wife. Since you can identify the hitman, the choices are simple and limited. You could simply plead memory loss and hope no-one notices you survived. You could help the police and then go into witness protection. Or you could fake your own death and think about whether it would be possible to take revenge.
OK, so you reason that if you were dead anyway, no-one would be looking for you and you could quietly research who might have ordered the hit. Being a doctor, your sister therefore fakes your death and you disappear into uncharted waters. Over the rest of the book, you make some interesting acquaintances and one possible long-term friend. You also get laid without having to die for real which is a bonus. There are some enemies, of course, including one retired FBI operative who’s vowing to track you down but, on balance, it looks as though a man with your skills can not only survive but also prosper while flying under the radar.
Dead Anyway is one of these deceptively simple thrillers which zips along like it’s on fire and, before you realise it, you’ve reached the end and are gasping for more of the same. It’s obviously set up for a sequel. I’m already sold on buying it. Don’t miss out. While the impulse for revenge gives us some of the oldest plot themes in the world, this reads as fresh as if Chris Knopf just invented it.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
For the record, this won the 2013 Nero Award.