Tuesday, August 9, 2011
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“IRON HOUSE” John Hart (Hachette/John Murray, $34:99)
“THE HYPNOTIST” Lars Kepler (translated from the Swedish by Ann Long) (HarperCollins, $38:99)
If there’s one thing I hate, it’s having a different opinion from people I respect. So before I talk about Iron House, the fourth novel by American thriller-writer John Hart, I should make it quite clear that his work is greatly respected by people in the thriller and mystery business.
Preceding the title page of Iron House are three pages of enthusiastic snippets from reviews of his earlier novels. They come from reviewers in top American and British newspapers - people like Patricia Cornwell. Hart has twice won the American Edgar Award (for crime novels) and he is visiting New Zealand this month to be part of the Christchurch Arts Festival when this year’s Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel is announced. A recent interview-profile of him by Craig Sisterson in the NZ Listener (30 July issue) commended him for his complex and layered characterization as well as his complex plots.
I’m carefully saying all this to show that many sound commentators like and admire this book. Perhaps if I have misgivings about Iron House, it means only that this is not my sort of book.
Iron House is unashamedly an action-driven thriller, with some mystery to rev it up.
Michael, an expert gangster hit-man, has found true love. He wants to get out of the gangster business and make a new life. But the gang boss won’t let him go straight. So he has to shoot his way out, and go on the lam with his pregnant girlfriend. The gang are in hot pursuit. There is rapidly a high body count.
As back-story to all this, we learn of Michael’s wretched childhood in a grim orphanage Down South, the “Iron House”, where he had to protect his feeble brother from kiddie thugs and sadistic adults. Past and present collide when pursuing gangsters take an interest in the feeble brother who is now a feeble adult.
I wouldn’t call the plot of Iron House labyrinthine. It’s always clear what is happening and who is doing what to whom. But there are two or three colliding plotlines. They come to involve a corrupt politician and his flashy wife, multiple murders, feral hillbillies up in the Southern hills, “dark secrets”, blackmail, torture and many, many shoot-outs. Even as he goes straight, Michael doesn’t neglect to use his gangster skills.
John Hart does keep things moving, does set up his scenes well and (if you can stomach it) does create an appropriately nasty and degenerate atmosphere in both the orphanage scenes and the hillbilly scenes. I have no doubt at all that this page-turner will be a big best-seller.
But – pardon me - the thing I found lacking was the very thing Hart has been praised for before.
Frankly, I found his characters thin and unbelievable. Michael is both impossibly noble in his motives and impossibly efficient as a killer. His girlfriend, who goes through all manner of perils, is incredibly adaptable and resilient. Others (like the perverted hillbilly mammy) seem as made for the movies as hero and heroine do.
This is action without credible psychological motivation.
Maybe it’s unfair of me to expect more of an action thriller, and I’m sure the people who give out the Edgar Awards know their market, and their audience, better than I do.
There’s no mystery about who John Hart is. He’s an American lawyer-turned-novelist. But there was once a little mystery about who wrote The Hypnotist.
Alexander and Alexandra Ahndoril are a Swedish husband and wife who have, separately, made careers writing the sort of serious novels that are called “literary novels”. Stalled in their literary careers, they decided to collaborate on something more popular. The result was The Hypnotist. With a nod to the late Stieg Larsson (the guy who wrote the “Millennium” trilogy of thrillers), it was published under the pseudonym “Lars Kepler”.
But The Hypnotist was such a huge success in Sweden that, in no time, interview-seeking journalists outed the couple who readily admitted their authorship. Inside the back cover of this English-language translation, there’s a note discreetly telling us that “Lars Kepler is the pseudonym for a literary couple who live and work in Sweden.”
The Hypnotist has become a best-seller all over Europe, a film version is being mooted, and the Ahndorils are now engaged in a whole follow-up series of thrillers. Their more “literary” careers are on hold.
So how good a read is The Hypnotist?
I’ll begin by stating the dead obvious. It works excellently as a page-turner and has clearly earned its huge readership. There are many, many cliff-hangers between chapters and the Ahndorils have also got the cunning habit of jumping back and forth in their time-sequence, so that a crucial back-story is revealed only little by little.
The premise has a family found carved up most horribly – father, mother, young son and his even younger sister. But, at the crime scene, the boy is found to be still breathing. Frantic for any information, Detective Inspector Joona Linna resorts to desperate measures. He calls on Erik Maria Bark, a psychiatrist who is also an expert hypnotist, but who was once caught in a malpractice scandal. The detective asks the shrink to hypnotise the semi-comatose boy and get him to describe what happened at the murder scene. What is revealed immediately alters our view of how the boy was involved.
You have this premise within the first 40 pages of a 500-page novel, so I’m not indulging in spoilers. But I can say that the story takes many twists. It moves far away from the original crime as more and more characters are introduced. In fact, who committed the crime becomes less important than what is going to happen next. In short, The Hypnotist is equal parts detective story and action thriller.
Among the ingredients are a kidnapping, the damaged private life of the hypnotist, child abuse, thuggish street gangs of young teens, and the very twisted desires of some psychiatric patients. The authors centre things of a number of families, depraved ones as well as functioning ones. There’s a subtext about the importance of family life in some form. If this is part of the authors’ serious literary concerns, though, the climax is more a nick-of-time action-packed punch-line of the sort which I’m sure will look great on the movie screen.
All thrillers and stories of detection are to some extent conjuror’s tricks. Their authors withhold information so that we can remain baffled until the solution is offered to us. Also like conjurors, authors “misdirect” us by dropping red herrings all over the place.
I didn’t mind the red herrings of The Hypnotist in the least. They are a fair part of the detective novel game and I’m not embarrassed that, 150 pages from the end, I thought I knew who was responsible for all the novel’s mayhem, only to be proven quite wrong in my surmise. This simply shows that the authors did their job well and fooled me properly. But I am a little miffed that the authors withhold, until about 300 pages in, something so crucial to the plot that they seem merely to have been toying with us. I’ll say nothing further about this or I really will be indulging in spoilers.
To end where I began – this is not a literary novel or a novel of character. It is a thriller and a page-turner. As such, it does what it is meant to do and grabs its target audience the way it is meant to.