Thursday, July 23, 2009

Opposites: Jeff Abbott and Reginald Hill

“I enjoy thrillers,” I wrote idly in an e-mail.

I was thinking of John Le Carre, or maybe James Bond. A novel of slow and genteel intrigue. The kind of book I haven’t read in a while, because I switched over to mysteries some years ago. So I wasn’t prepared for Jeff Abbott’s Trust Me. This non-stop action-crime-espionage novel is a lot like techno-thriller science fiction in terms of pace. It’s suspenseful and mesmerizing, a rapid-fire book that is difficult to put down, unless, like me, you get overstimulated. Trust Me is so fast and frightening that I took periodic breaks to do something ironically normal like surf the net. Only you shouldn’t surf the net when you’re reading Trust Me, a novel fueled by extreme, if realistic, internet paranoia.

The hero, Luke Dantry, a brilliant, techno-savvy psychology grad student in Texas, spends his nights reading and writing posts at internet forums to locate and profile potential terrorists. He isn’t doing it for fun: he hands over the names to his stepfather Henry, who runs a think tank that fights terrorism. But when Luke is kidnapped by an edgy middle-class banker, Eric, then chained up in a cabin, from which he escapes, and then pursued by two terrorists, Mouser, who dreams of killing “the Beast” (the U.S. government), and Snow, a fanatical killer who has made bombs for a forthcoming operation, he realizes that Henry may be implicated in the terrorist network.

Luke is on the run throughout the novel. He uses computers to contact acquaintances in Chicago, the base of Erik, his kidnapper, and to gather information. The computer geeks who help him along the way, however, are just as likely to stab him in the back. He must find $3 million, hidden by Eric, that Henry and the terrorists are searching for. If he doesn’t find it, a series of bombings known as Hellfire will disrupt the U.S.

Abbott’s characters are convincing and well-drawn. Luke is a tall, quiet guy, an athletic loner who has to learn to take care of himself fast. After two shoot-outs in Chicago (yes, it’s all action), Luke travels to New York with Aubrey, Eric’s girlfriend, who is also on the run, a smart, savvy woman. And when she is kidnapped, it’s onward to Paris to find her and the rest of the network.

Abbott’s novel is enjoyable in a scary kind of way. It’s all about the pace and plot of the different scenes. It's all about trust: can you trust anyone? The writing is good enough, but you don’t really notice it. You have to read to know what happens next. I couldn’t do this too often. I’m used to books where nothing happens (my Jane Austen binge, etc.).

It didn't feel quite like reading. That's the weird thing. It's more like experiencing a movie on some molecular level. The experience was exhausting, though I think this could be a really good movie, a cross between The Bourne Identity, The 39 Steps, and something, anything, with Harrison Ford.

On another note, I’ve also been reading a mystery, Reginald Hill’s An Advancement of Learning. (I try to read one mystery a year.) If you don’t know this classic series, it’s worth reading just for the characters: Dalziel, a fat, smart superintendent who has seen it all, regularly mocks, exploits, and then praises Pascoe, an overworked, well-organized sergeant, who has a college degree in social sciences (scorned by Dalziel). When a crane operator removes a statue to transport it to a different part of the grounds at a small college, the skeleton of a woman is found in the base. Dalziel and Pascoe are called in to solve the mystery. This is a slow-paced novel - only one corpse in 70 pages - but well-written and fun in a different way from Abbott's book.

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