Monday, March 26, 2012

the last book I read

Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd.

Adam Kindred's been a bit of a silly boy - set up nicely over in the US with a lucrative and stimulating job as a climatologist and a happy marriage, he succumbs to the temptation of a furtive quickie with one of his students, who inconveniently turns out to be a bunny-boiler and bombards him and his wife with texts and phone calls, all of which end up costing Adam his job and his marriage. So he finds himself back in the UK setting up job interviews, one of which brings him to London.

He's sitting in a café mulling over the interview he's just had at Imperial College when he meets Philip Wang, who's sitting at the table next to him. They strike up a desultory conversation over a cup of coffee, Wang leaves, and Adam thinks no more of it, until he realises that Wang has dropped a folder on the floor as he left. He phones Wang and agrees to come and meet him at his flat (which happens to be just round the corner) to return it.

Adam gets buzzed up to Wang's flat and is slightly surprised to find Wang in the bedroom with a bread knife protruding from his torso and blood pissing out all over the floor. Having not helped the situation by yanking the knife out and getting his fingerprints all over it, he then realises the killer may still be in the flat and scarpers down the fire escape. Now at this point the obvious thing to do, and the thing anyone would do in real life, would be to go straight to the police and report the murder. But that would make for an unsatisfyingly short novel, so instead Adam pops into the pub round the corner for a pint to calm down a bit, and then decides to head back to his hotel to freshen up first. Back at the hotel he has two close encounters, firstly with the killer who has pursued him and whom he manages to deter with a bit of ninja-style combat with his briefcase, and secondly with the police who screech up just as he's making a sharp exit.

So you're a wanted man, on the run in central London. Clearly your best course of action here is to hide in a hedge for a bit and collect your thoughts. So Adam locates a convenient bit of ground by Chelsea Bridge (the little isosceles triangle between the road and the river here, in fact) and decides to lie low for a bit until he works out what to do next.

Now a man hiding in a hedge isn't really going to drive the narrative along, so we need more plot strands. Here's a couple, then - Wang's death has caused a bit of (understandable) consternation at the company he worked for, Calenture-Deutz, as they were in the throes of FDA approval for a new anti-asthma drug which could make them gazillions of pounds, and for which Wang was the head of the research team. Meanwhile Jonjo Case, former SAS paratrooper and current hush-hush no-questions-asked killer for hire, is looking to try and clear up the loose ends from his latest job, rubbing out this science guy who was getting too near some inconvenient truths. This Adam Kindred guy taking the rap for the murder is handy and all, but it'd be even better if he was to meet an unfortunate accident as well, just to rule out any nasty surprises later. Meanwhile foxy London copper Rita Nashe, freshly transferred to the river police unit, is investigating a report of some scruffy-looking guy dismembering a seagull on a patch of waste ground by Chelsea Bridge....

Adam decides that he can't spend the rest of his life living in a hedge, even though he's been able to keep himself fed by a bit of begging and bin-scavenging (and seagull-murdering). After meeting up with single mother and prostitute Mhouse and going along to her deranged revivalist church in Rotherhithe (mainly for the free grub) he enters into a financial arrangement with her whereby he rents her spare room. Well, it's better than a hedge. Inevitably he ends up "entering into" her in a more physical sense as well, once appropriate payment has changed hands. Meanwhile he's also doing a bit of amateur sleuthing on the side based on the contents of the dossier from Wang that he's still got. It's all a bit difficult when you don't officially exist, though.

Help is at hand, however - fellow churchgoer Vladimir has a source who can get hold of fake passports, and he's used one of them to get himself a bank account, a credit card and a job. Having suggested that Adam move in with him, he then ups and dies of a drug overdose. This is great in one sense, as Adam can (after a judicious haircut) pretend to be him and take over his job, which just happens to be as a porter in a hospital, but awkward in another sense as there's this bit fat Russian in the spare room who needs disposing of, and he's starting to smell a bit. But, you know, omelettes, eggs, and all that sort of thing.

Just to throw a spanner in the works, though, old Jonjo Case is still around, and he's gradually following the trail that leads to Adam. First port of call is to pay a visit to the Rotherhithe sink estate and see if Mhouse knows where Adam is, and then casually kill her after she's served her purpose. When Adam reads about her death in the paper he feels obliged to stick his head above the parapet (in his new hospital porter persona) and confirm her identity, and in so doing meets the officer in charge of the case, none other than foxy Rita Nashe, whereupon sparks fly and both of them come over all unnecessary in the trouser department.

Eventually Adam's amateur sleuthing reveals the dastardly plot around the asthma drug trials and the reason Wang had to be unceremoniously rubbed out (he Knew Too Much, basically), and with some help from Rita's dad engineers a bit of corporate espionage which ensures that bad old unscrupulous Big Pharma get what's coming to them, and the police are tipped off as to the identity of those really responsible for Wang's death. And so Adam (now thoroughly settled into his hospital porter identity) and Rita link arms and stroll off into the sunset together.

There are a few loose ends, though - while Jonjo Case is off Adam's back in the short term, having been obliged to flee across the Channel to the Netherlands after being revealed as Wang's murderer, he departs metaphorically shaking his fist back towards London and giving it all the I'll Get You, Penelope Pitstop, so will he return to wreak his revenge? Also, sweet though Rita and Adam's relationship is, she still knows him as Primo Belem the hospital porter (the name on Vladimir's black-market passport), a subterfuge which (as Adam himself concedes) can't possibly survive the two of them actually living together. And as unquestioning as she's been up to now about a lowly hospital porter conducting international espionage, you can't help thinking she'll be a little bit upset when he tells her the truth.

These are strands (there were a few in Restless as well) that would have been tied up more securely in a bog-standard thriller, so is Boyd - perhaps conscious that he's been slumming it a bit genre-wise - doing this on purpose to distinguish Ordinary Thunderstorms from a bog-standard thriller and pitch it more into the realm of literary fiction where loose ends are often left at the end? There is some slightly arch business going on with the name (Ingram Fryzer) of the drug company boss as well - as well as being the name of Christopher Marlowe's murderer it's presumably also a punning echo of another real-life drug company.

Criticising what is essentially a thriller for being a bit implausible is a bit churlish, but there are a few bits which strain the reader's disbelief-suspending powers - Adam's not going straight to the police on discovering Wang for one thing, not to mention his rashly yanking the knife out of Wang's side (surely everyone knows not to do this?), thereby both getting his fingerprints all over it and hastening Wang's demise. The convenient circumstances of Vladimir's death and Adam's inheriting of his new job - which just happens to be in the very hospital where some of the drug trials were carried out - are a bit, well, convenient as well, as are the points in the story (the initial encounter with Jonjo Case and the subsequent briefcase-fu, disposing of Vladimir's body) where Adam turns into a sort of proto-Jason Bourne at the drop of a hat. Most bizarre of all is the episode towards the end where Adam casually murders Vincent Turpin, a vagrant who was trying to blackmail him - a murder we're presumably meant to applaud since it's been revealed that Turpin is a bit of a paedo and therefore fair game. I suppose, to be fair, it would be hard to name a successful and satisfying thriller that was not hugely implausible when you sat back and thought about it afterwards, though.

It would be remiss of me not also to mention the other works whose plots Ordinary Thunderstorms echoes, most notably The Fugitive - man arrives at scene of murder just as actual murderer makes good his escape, is assumed to have committed the murder himself, escapes, reveals unsuspected resourcefulness, unearths dastardly medically-themed plot, infiltrates medical institutions to gather evidence, reveals evidence, brings down evildoers, the end. More than one of Robin Cook's medical thrillers (Fever is probably the best one) contain similar medical conspiracies that need to be exposed as well. The main character finding a body at the start of the novel and subsequently having his whole life turned upside-down also echoes the plot of Boyd's own earlier novel Armadillo (not one of his best), and I suppose as the canonical innocent-man-on-the-run-trying-to-clear-his-name story John Buchan's The 39 Steps should get a mention here as well.

Another odd coincidence is that the name of the hospital where Adam gets his portering job is St. Botolph's, the same name as the town in The Wapshot Chronicle. The real St. Botolph is the patron saint of travellers and farming, and also the man who gave his name to Boston, Lincolnshire - and therefore also to Boston, Massachusetts - "Boston" being a contraction of "Botolphston" or something similar.

I wouldn't want you to think the slightly nit-picky tone above means I didn't enjoy Ordinary Thunderstorms, because it's thoroughly readable and very exciting, with characters (unlike a lot of thrillers) you actually care about. It's just that after the excellence of things like Brazzaville Beach and The Blue Afternoon this seems a bit.....ooh, I dunno - unambitious? Start with those, anyway.

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