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“My head leaning against the [train’s] carriage window, I watch the houses roll past me like a tracking shot on film. I see them as others do not; even their owners probably don’t see them from this perspective. Twice a day, I am offered a view into other lives, just for a moment. There’s something comforting about the sight of strangers safe at home.”–Rachel’s view during her daily commute by train.

Book titles are often the first real clue to the author’s vision for his/her story and characters, and it is ironic that my review of this book, The Girl on the Train, immediately follows my review of another book with a similar-sounding title, Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van. In the latter, however, Bennett’s use of “lady” to describe Mary Shepherd, an elderly homeless woman living in a van without plumbing, establishes not only her pride and sense of independence but also the author’s ironic respect for her and her queenly refusal to yield to anyone about anything. Author Paula Hawkins’s title of The Girl on the Train, on the other hand, conveys a completely different impression about the person at the heart of this story. Referring to Rachel, a main character, as a “girl,” though she is in her early thirties, may be appropriate if one considers her limitations, but it also betrays the author’s own lack of respect for her. In fact, Rachel is an alcoholic whose husband has left her, a woman who has had repeated warnings at work about her drunken behavior, a person totally dependent on others for a sense of self, and someone so insecure that she needs constant positive reinforcement in order to get along in the real world. “I have lost control of everything, even the places in my head,” she notes.

Author photo by Matt Dunham/AP

The Girl on the Train, a debut thriller from England, features three women, one of whom becomes the victim of murder in this plot which has no heroes or heroines, no Superman or Batgirl or brilliant detective to come flying to the rescue. To involve the reader, the author has had to choose a different way to counteract the absence of a hero/heroine, and she does so here in a most ironic way – by creating three important female characters, all of whom are weak, dependent, and dealing with personal problems involving husbands and lovers, past and present. The reader’s involvement, stimulated throughout by a sense of pity for these damaged women, depends upon an empathy with their psychological problems and the flawed decisions they make while affected by their problems. Rachel, the main character who introduces the novel, connects them all, structurally, through her train rides from the rural community where she has a room to her job in London. As she commutes, the train passes a house in the town of Witby, where she lived for five years with her husband Tom, and where he continues to live with his current wife Anna and their child. Four houses down the road from Tom and Anna, live a couple whom Rachel has named Jess and Jason, people she has never met but whose lives, as seen from the train, seem idyllic in the fantasy world which Rachel would like to believe parallels her own life with ex-husband Tom.

Rachel is particularly fond of pre-mixed gin and tonics in cans, which she purchases from the supermarket - four of them for the ride home.

From this beginning, the author then flashes back a year, introducing Megan Hipwell, married to Scott, the “Jess” and “Jason” of Rachel’s imagination. Giving exact dates, fourteen months apart at the time that Megan first appears in the novel, and updating throughout to include Anna, Tom’s present wife, the author toggles the picture of life in Rachel’s mind in 2013 back and forth with the points of view of these two other women in 2012, gradually reducing the interval between episodes until, at the end of the novel, the two time frames come together. Megan, whom Rachel sees kissing a stranger one day as the train goes past her house, is a former gallery owner, now out of work, “playing at real life instead of actually living it,” and her life consists of shopping, Pilates classes, and seeing her therapist, Dr. Kamal Abdic. Anna, Tom’s new wife and the mother of their baby, is not only living in Rachel’s former house, but also among all Rachel’s furnishings, and she is furious that Tom is not being firm enough with Rachel when she calls them at night in her drunken need for someone to talk to, conversations she often does not remember the next day.

This rural train station may resemble the small station in the town from which Rachel departs for London each morning.

Rachel’s violation of the personal boundaries that normal people observe bring her into the worlds of both Megan and Anna one day when she decides to get off the train in Witby. She begins to make physical contact with Scott, Megan’s husband, with Anna and the baby, and with other peripheral characters. The reader cannot help but notice how much these three women behave like children, responding to uncomfortable situations with temper tantrums, ignoring the “rules” of civilized discourse and behavior, and throwing hissy fits whenever things do not go their way. The men, who often regard themselves as victims of these women, also contribute to their problems by taking advantage of them. When the body of one of the women, missing for a week, is discovered, and the police begin their investigation of what is found to be murder, the drama speeds up, the mysteries deepen, and the reader’s speculation about the identity of the murderer increases. With three neurotic women – Rachel, Megan, and Anna; two frustrated men – Scott and Tom; a psychiatrist who gets around and seems to know everyone; and a mysterious man with red hair whom Rachel knows from the train, the number of suspects and their possible motivations is high.

Some frightening events take place in and around an old railroad tunnel during the course of this novel.

Many reviews of this novel talk about the “Hitchcockian” qualities of this novel.  I agree that there is a similarity between The Girl on the Train and Rear Window, in that both the novel and the film feature a main character who sees something unusual out a window, thereby starting the action.  That is the only real similarity, however.  In The Girl on the Train, the reader can imagine any one of the main characters murdering someone if pushed to the limit, so there is little surprise when the real culprit is discovered, and none of the characters are likeable, so there is little sense of disappointment with the discovery. The women are so much alike that they could all be the same person in different guises, thereby reducing the eventual surprise even more. The author does have a structural formula for creating suspense, and she does follow it precisely and somewhat successfully as she slowly reveals information from the two different time periods of the novel, but the structure itself, with its back and forth in time, and its shifts among the immature “girls” who are the main characters here make this novel more akin to a domestic TV serial than to a carefully choreographed Alfred Hitchcock film with its withheld information and its well-developed, sophisticated characters.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo by Matt Dunham/AP appears on :  http://www.csmonitor.com/

Though I have never seen pre-mixed gin-and-tonics in cans at stores here in the US, they are a feature in Rachel’s ride home from work on Friday night.  She buys four of them to take with her.  http://thesipadvisor.com

Rachel trips on the stairs at her rural train station and injures herself:http://www.dailymail.co.uk/

An abandoned railroad station features in the action and inspires fear in Rachel. https://www.pinterest.com/

Note: Alan Bennett has won dozens of prizes over his long career, but he declined the honor of becoming a Commander of the British Empire in 1988 and a knighthood in 1996.   He has stated in a BBC interview that, “although he is not a republican, he would never wish to be knighted, saying it would be a bit like having to wear a suit for the rest of his life.”

‘I ran into a snake this afternoon,’ Miss Shepherd said. ‘It was coming up Parkway. It was a long, grey snake, a boa constrictor possibly, it looked poisonous. It was keeping close to the wall and seemed to know its way. I’ve a feeling it may have been heading for [my] van.’ I was relieved that on this occasion she didn’t demand that I ring the police, as she regularly did if anything out of the ordinary occurred…She brought her mug over and I made her a drink which she took back to the van. ‘I thought I’d better tell you,’ she said, ‘just to be on the safe side. I’ve had some close shaves with snakes.’–Miss Shepherd to Alan Bennett.

Famous for his hilariously ironic comic sketches in Beyond the Fringe (1960), with Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller, and Peter Cook, and Talking Heads (1992);  for his recent Tony Award-winning play The History Boys (2004), among other productions; and, most recently, for his gently satiric novel (2007), An Uncommon Reader, about Queen Elizabeth’s discovery of a new kind of reading, Alan Bennett in this 1989 novella gives insights into his own life and personality. In The Lady in the Van, he details the relationship he had with someone who, under any other circumstances, would be considered a homeless person. In this case, Mary Shepherd is not really “homeless” because she lives, unkempt and unfettered, in a dilapidated van, painted yellow, “the papal color,” which she has parked illegally in various places throughout Bennett’s neighborhood. When she runs afoul of the parking regulations while her van is on a lot across the street from Bennett’s own house, Bennett offers to let her park the van temporarily in the garden entrance to his house.

Beginning in 1969, when Bennett tells of meeting her for the first time, and concluding in 1989, with her death at age seventy-seven, Bennett gives a diary of Mary Shepherd’s life – and, incidentally, his own life – not as her benefactor (which he fears might leave him open to the charge of “do-gooding”) but as a person who respects the independence of those around him, even those like Mary Shepherd who severely challenges his good nature every step of the way.  Like many well-educated young liberals of the seventies, Bennett recognizes his privileged middle-class social position and feels a social obligation toward those less fortunate, and he genuinely wants to help Miss Shepherd.   She herself, however, feels no gratitude whatsoever, simply regarding his sharing of his private entrance-way as the appropriate thing for him to do.  The challenges she presents would have qualified Bennett for sainthood.  Independent, unrepentant, and fiercely self-protective, she is so difficult that Bennett remarks,”One seldom was able to do her a good turn without thoughts of strangulation.”  He never expects that she will remain parked in his driveway for the next fifteen years.

Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith) painting her van the "pope's color." Note trash bags under the van.

The founder of her own political party (with its membership of two, including a nun suffering from Alzheimer’s) and writer of political tracts (which she sells, along with pencils), Miss Shepherd attempts to run for Parliament while lacking any official address.  As Bennett describes her colorful clothing and headgear (all of it foully odoriferous), the listener can only acknowledge in amazement Bennett’s tolerance and ability to continue allowing Miss Shepherd to live her own life on her own terms – on his property and in his close neighborhood.

If her long intrusion into his own life and privacy were not bad enough, Miss Shepherd brings with her one more huge problem: The van has no plumbing – no running water, and no sanitary facilities.  She casually stacks her growing collection of plastic bags – piles of them –around the van in Bennett’s driveway.  Eventually she begins to spend nights in a lean-to on the side of Bennett’s house, and ultimately, Bennett strings a cord to the lean-to so that she will have at least some power and warmth.

As Miss Shepherd continues her unsanitary life on Bennett’s property, the reader gradually recognizes that she is aging and becoming less grounded in reality, though dementia does not stop her and does not interfere with Bennett’s kindness toward her and his willingness to acknowledge her independence while also wanting to help.  The novella is as much a tribute to Bennett, though he would be horrified to hear this, as it is to Mary Shepherd, a woman who never gives in.  His attitude toward her over the course of almost twenty years is actually somewhat mystifying, and he himself may have had a hard time reconciling his goodness toward her with the genuine problems she created for him in his own life.

Poster for the upcoming film, due out on December, 2015.

Even after her death at age seventy-seven, Bennett continued to focus on Mary Shepherd and her life, off and on, for twenty-five more years, from their first meeting in 1969 until the present.  His book, The Lady in the Van, was written in 1989; his play of the same title, in 1999, starring Maggie Smith; his radio play, in 2009, also starring Maggie Smith; a new edition of the book, being released by Picador (in the US) on November 3, 2015;  and now, coming out in December, 2015, the film of this story for which Bennett has also written the screenplay.  This film also features Maggie Smith (who must have relished playing this role after playing the role of the Dowager Countess of Grantham in “Downton Abbey” for the past five years).

The book may be found, used, on Amazon.  The new November edition may be pre-ordered there or on other book sites.

ALSO reviewed here: THE UNCOMMON READER

The official trailer for this film is here: “>

Photos, in order: The author’s photo is from http://www.broadway.com/

Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith)paints her van yellow in the film version, which comes out in December, 2015.

Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) pushes Miss Shepherd in her wheelchair, right down the center lane of the street.  http://filmmusicreporter.com/

The poster for the December, 2015, film appears on http://www.tribute.ca/

Note: French author Patrick Modiano was WINNER of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014.  His selection came as such a surprise that there were almost no copies of his novels available in English at the time of his win.  This new translation has been published by Yale University.

“Rainwater poured onto [Pacheco] from the top of the steps, and his jacket was drenched.  But he did not move an inch…Little by little, that man melted into the wall.  Or else the rain, from falling on him so heavily, had dissolved him, the way water dilutes a fresco that hasn’t had time to dry properly….No trace of him remained.  He had vanished in that sudden way that I’d later notice in other people, like my father, which leaves you so puzzled that you have no choice but to look for proofs and clues to convince yourself these people had really existed.”—from “Flowers of Ruin”

Have you ever read a book that so envelops you and feeds your imagination that you feel as if the author somehow knows every aspect of your life, even though the exotic settings and images of his story bear no resemblance at all to your own?  I hadn’t.  And when it happened in the first novella of this collection of three, “Afterimage,” I could hardly believe that I had lived totally, for the entire length of the novella, in French author Patrick Modiano’s world, a world of uncertainties and no answers, and I had reacted to that world as if it had been my own.  Instead of feeling let down by a lack of conclusion to the plot elements, as I often do when an author does not sum up and “resolve” the action and themes, I felt energized instead, connected to the author and his alter ego/ protagonist in ways I never expected.  I saw parallels with my own life, and most surprisingly, I found myself wondering about people I have not seen in years, curious about what happened to them; pondering riddles of my own childhood; and wondering if I had misunderstood what was really going on beneath the surface of reality, as young characters do here.

Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano

Patrick Modiano is a master at evoking mysteries and riddles, not in the usual sense of popular fiction, but in his recognition of the private mysteries which infuse our own lives from childhood to adulthood and after,  enigmas we never fully understand when they are happening to us.  In fact, the author suggests, our personal realities may be mostly questions with no answers, a result of our not knowing what others, including our parents and best friends, are thinking, planning, and doing when they are not with us.  To the extent that each of these three novellas hinges on the relationship of a main character with another person whose own decisions affect him long after the relationship itself may be over, the novellas here suggest that perhaps the speaker may simply have missed his chance to find answers earlier in his life, that if he had been more alert, perceptive, or aggressive that he might have been happier – more at peace – with his inner world.

Famed Hungarian war photographer Robert Capa, friend of Francis Jansen. Capa died in 1954, while photographing the first war in Vietnam, where the French had been fighting for eight years.

“Afterimage,” the first novella, and my favorite of the three, opens in the spring of 1964, when the speaker is sixteen.  While sitting in a café with a young girl of his own age, he observes a much older man sitting beside him.  The man takes out his Rolleiflex camera and takes several quick photos of the two teens before they can even register what has happened, then asks them if he may photograph them again, as part of an article on Paris youth that he has been hired to illustrate.  They agree, and follow him to his studio, gray and almost bare, except for two black-and-white portraits, one of them of a woman named Colette Laurent, an actress, now forgotten, who appeared in only two films in 1942 and 1955, and the other showing Francis Jansen, the photographer himself, with his friend, famed war photographer Robert Capa, in 1945.  Thirty years have passed since Jansen left Paris, and the speaker never saw him again, but the few months that he did know him left an indelible mark.  As Modiano describes the nature of this teenager’s fascination with Jansen and peripherally Colette, their friends, and the interactions they had, including the boy’s cataloguing of all Jansen’s photographs, we come to know the boy and his values and his hopes for the future.  The boy had taken on the cataloguing job “because I refused to accept that people and things could disappear without a trace.”  Jansen himself didn’t want to take any “excess baggage” when he left for Mexico, plans he did not share with the boy because he “thought a photographer was nothing, that he should blend into the surroundings and become invisible.”  The passage of time does little to lessen the intensity of the boy’s memories of Jansen, even as the specifics of those days and events fade.

Bullet-pocked wall where Jean Montvallier-Boulogne, at the age of twenty-four, died in 1944, as Paris was liberated. Jansen had pointed out the plaque to the speaker, but it was missing when he checked later, and "I was no longer sure Jean Montvallier-Boulogne had ever existed."

In “Suspended Sentences,” the second novella, the speaker is ten years old.  His mother, an actress, like the author’s mother, is always traveling, as is his father.  The mother leaves Patoche, a diminutive of Patrick, and his brother Rudy, in the care of three exotic women, one of whom was an acrobat, and Patoche and Rudy, who later disappears from the novella, conclude that these women are all part of a carnival or circus.  Their surreal lives in a rural area with an abandoned and decaying chateau nearby lead the boys to spend much time living in their imaginations, with night-time forays, either real or imaginary, into the abandoned chateau to keep them totally engaged.  The reader suspects from the outset that Patoche’s guardians are involved in criminal activity, and his father’s visits and meetings with them inside the decrepit chateau confirm that, though Patoche has no clue.

Abandoned and rotting chateau in Paris, located near where Patoche was living with his brother Rudy and their caretakers. Their father met others there at nights, occasionally, for meetings of what may have been the Rue Lauriston gang, known also as the Carlingue.

The final novella, “Flowers of Ruin,” plays with time, as the speaker moves back and forth between the early 1990s and much earlier times while walking around Paris.  Exacting descriptions allow readers to pinpoint particular places, though many of these places have changed dramatically, or in the case of buildings, may no longer exist. References to Gisele and Urbain T, real people who succumbed in a joint suicide in 1933; to the speaker and his relationship with “Jacqueline” in the 1960s; and to travels in Vienna broaden the scope, while references to the Rue Lauriston gang, which almost certainly included his father, and to the changing names of Philippe de Bellune/ Pacheco add to the mysteries of identity and memory.

The cafeteria at the Cite Universitaire, a protected zone where university students and professors can live comfortably and not be arrested. The speaker meets the fifty-ish Pacheco there and discovers that he is supposedly enrolled in a science program.

Modiano’s style, surprisingly clear and concise for a novel that is as vague and off-center in its focus as this one, shines in this translation by Mark Polizzotti, even as it remains cloudy and atmospheric in mood.  Characters and their alter-egos reappear among the three novellas and different time frames, as do memories and “afterimages,” many of these so closely related to the author’s own life that it is difficult not to regard much of this as autobiographical, at least in its inspiration.  Powerfully seductive, the three novellas here raise questions about whether readers will also seek out answers to mysteries in their own pasts and whether some of their answers will appear by accident, as they sometimes do here.  (Suspended Sentences is at the top of my Favorites list for the year.)

Note: More on Robert Capa may be found here.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo is from http://www.independent.co.uk/

Robert Capa’s photo appears on http://erickimphotography.com

Jean Montvallier-/Boulogne, age twenty-four, died during the liberation of Paris in 1944.  The plaque commemorating this death was missing when Jansen took the speaker to see it, and the speaker states that he “was no longer sure Jean Montvallier-Boulogne had ever existed.”  http://en.tracesofwar.com

The speaker and his brother Rudy live near an abandoned and decaying chateau, where they envision themselves exploring at night and where they see their father arriving for meetings. http://www.messynessychic.com

Cite University, in Paris, a place where university students can reside, get meals, and have protection from seizure for their beliefs, is where the speaker  meets with the older Pacheco, who has a long history of various names and whose “crimes” are mysterious.  http://www.macite-u.com/

“On Wednesday, I got fired from the publishing house.  I went home and sat in a daze, until somebody rang the bell and I opened the door to two dapperly dressed men with kissers like carved wood.  They just flashed their IDs and said to come with them…One of the spooks slipped in behind me and kept an eye on my fingers as I dropped my wallet into my handbag…The dapper dans stuffed me into the back of a car…and we sped off to headquarters of State Security.” –Helena Novakova

Author Heda Margolius Kovaly’s real life contains more drama than any of the characters in this novel ever dreamed of, no matter how traumatic their situations may appear here.  Growing up in a Jewish family in Prague, she lived through the arrival of the Third Reich and the occupation of the country, her relocation to Lodz in occupied Poland, and her eventual transfer to Auschwitz.  The only survivor in her family, she ended up in a labor camp before being sent on a death march from Poland to Germany, during which she escaped and, with the help of Czech partisans, was hidden and eventually spirited back to Prague. The Communist takeover in 1948, the corruption among the political appointees in charge of the cities, and the eventual arrest and execution of her husband left her alone with her small son within a society which was afraid to associate with her as the wife of a “traitor.”  The Communist police state maintained power through fear-mongering, censorship, the use of informers, arbitrary imprisonment, and all forms of political oppression.

In 1985, thirty years after author Heda Margolius Kovaly lived through these times, and twenty years after her escape from Czechoslovakia to the United States, she wrote Innocence, her only novel, which takes an unusual approach to some of the issues which so dramatically affected her own life in the 1950s.  Working in the library at Harvard after her escape, she had come to admire the work of Raymond Chandler, among other English-speaking authors, and in this novel, she uses Chandler’s abrupt, noir style to flash back and bring to life some of the crimes of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia against ordinary citizens.  These abuses were so horrific and so universal that I found myself somewhat nonplussed to see them recreated here within the limitations of a Raymond Chandler-style novel, almost as if the author were understating the legitimate horrors of her own experience in order not to draw too much attention to her own amazing survival.  Fortunately, Part I, the Chandleresque section (from which the introductory quotation is taken) is followed by a Part II, which pays more attention to the psychological effects on ordinary people caught up in the maelstrom of political unrest.  The two parts, taken together, provide a unique perspective from which to evaluate both the daily horrors and their longer-term effects.

Raymond Chandler, described as the "founder of the hard-boiled style" of detective fiction, served as the inspiration for the style of Part I.

As Part I opens, Helena, a stand-in for the author, is working at a movie theatre, and she castigates the projectionist Janecek for starting a film with the wrong reel.  Janecek’s only friend is Josef, the eight-year-old nephew of one of the ushers at the theatre, who comes to visit his aunt, sometimes, when his mother is at work. When the child goes missing and soon after is found dead under the projection room floor, Janecek is arrested.  Within a few more pages, the reader learns more about Helena, whose husband of two years, Karel, suggests that her friend Jana Hronkova and her boyfriend, Antonin Fiser, take a weekend off and enjoy the cottage that Karel and Helena have in the rural countryside.  He draws a map to show them how to find the cottage.  Unfortunately, the road shown on the map goes past a military installation, and the police see this as subversive activity and demand that all four of them be picked up, interrogated, and held on “suspicion.”

Helena admires Bozena Nemkova, a nineteenth century Czech author who survived many difficulties and served as a spiritual model for Helena.

Gradually, other characters are introduced.  Mrs. Kourimska seems to be living a double life, judging from the exotic food – truffle pate and crabmeat – she is preparing for a “guest” and seems to have some sort of private income.  Marie, an usherette at the theatre, uses her body to advance her own interests by having an affair with a married police captain.  Helena’s own husband, Karel Janek, is sentenced to jail for six years, and Helena, in desperate need of someone to talk to, becomes attracted to a charming zoologist.  Every move she makes is monitored by the state security forces, and she soon finds herself responding to information from one of her co-workers, about an official who may be able to help her gain some privileges for Janek which will make his life more bearable if she is willing to “perform” for the officer.

A Skoda car, 1955, is involved in a murder as Part II opens.

All of Part I is filled with clichés and platitudes, and the extent to which the author may be satirizing, rather than copying, some of Chandler’s writing is unclear.  Helena’s first person point of view, alternating with third person point of view elsewhere, gives a kind of immediacy to Helena’s predicaments, even though the reader is bombarded with similes and metaphors like, “Happiness is like a cake,” “life was like a game of bridge,” someone was “wrung out like a dishrag.”  One person “sang like a bird” while another “spilled the beans.”  Slang, which might have passed in Chandler’s English, feels artificial in this setting and sometimes bizarre:  Comments that “every sentence is a laugh riot,” and that a woman is a “piece of skirt” who “does not have the dough” to do something, or that someone else has “gone off the rails” simply do not feel natural.  And the platitudes are annoying:  “The only way to run in the right direction is by accident.”  “Just the fact that she keeps her distance from everyone is suspicious.”

Snow on the Mala Strana rooftops, an image at the conclusion of the novel.

Part II, far more sophisticated and lacking in the Chandleresque affectations, emphasizes the psychological effects of this period on individuals who run afoul of the police state or who are related to people who have inadvertently found themselves involved against their will.  How little persuasion it takes for people to become informants is one of the major themes, and as the subject of guilt vs. innocence becomes ever more developed, the cynicism of the period becomes clear.  Everyone is isolated:  “There’s alone, more alone, and most alone of all.”  As two more murders take place and more people are involved in saving the lives of family, friends, or themselves from false arrest, the reader begins to understand just what people mean when they say, “There’s no such thing as an innocent person.”

Photos, in order: The author’s photo appears on http://new-york.czechcentres.cz/

An article on Raymond Chandler and his photo may be found on http://www.telegraph.co.uk

The statue of Bozena Nemkova, Helena’s idol, is from  https://commons.wikimedia.org

A dark blue Skoda car is the site of a murder at the beginning of Part II. 

Part I opens in spring.  Part II concludes with an image of snow on the rooftops of Mala Strana: http://bourbonandtea.blogspot.com

“A literary agent asked me to write a non-fiction book about the Tereshchenko case.  I said I wouldn’t do it but I’d be happy to write fiction.  I’ve always admired John le Carre.  The agent wasn’t interested. He said there were three places in the world where he thought crime fiction didn’t work: Africa, South America and Russia.  When I asked him why, he said that they were all too surreal; nobody would be able to suspend their disbelief.”–Andrei Bobkov, father of Sasha

Reading this thriller is like reading an action film – an experience filled with non-stop drama, several different plot lines, quick changes of scene, numerous exotic settings, characters ranging from sick sociopaths to innocent children, and enough torture and gore to make one wretch.  Opening with the point of view of Amy Boxer, the eighteen-year-old daughter of former investigator Charles Boxer and Detective Inspector Mercy Danquah, British author Robert Wilson brings the reader directly into the action.  Amy, anxious to escape the boredom of her life and her parents’ expectations, has completely cleared all her belongings from her mother’s London apartment, a few things at a time, and has come up with what she regards as a fool-proof plan to run away and not be caught.  She must be particularly careful to make no missteps. Her mother Mercy works with the Specialist Crime Directorate – the kidnap unit – and Amy not only wants to escape her life and vanish but, even more importantly, to embarrass her parents in the process.  Her father, Charles Boxer, long separated from Mercy, has also specialized in kidnapping cases and now runs a charitable foundation called LOST, which finds missing people after the police have given up.  Charles’s own father had run away from Esme, his mother, leaving behind a note saying, “You will never find me,” exactly the message that Amy has left her own parents in her letter to them.

As Amy’s parents relive everything they have done wrong in trying to bring her up, the reader develops a certain sympathy for them, but at the same time their long-time disconnection with Amy and their preoccupation with their jobs seem to have made Amy’s own life both unfocused and undisciplined, a recipe for disaster which is hard to believe of two professionals who specialize in missing children and runaways. Amy’s acting out goes way beyond “ordinary” behavior for troubled teens, involving people and activities that directly challenge the law and the police, yet she has never received the attention she has been crying out for from her parents, who have specialized in adolescent behaviors just like hers.  “She doesn’t care what people think of her,” her father comments, with a sad kind of admiration.  “That takes strength of character.  Most people want to be liked.  We admire those who don’t give a damn.” A few pages later, Amy is in Spain, showing off at a nightclub and dancing with El Osito, “Little Bear,” a drug dealer who wants to expand his territory in London.

Barajas Airport, Madrid, designed by Richard Rogers, Amy's destination upon leaving home.

All of this and much more happens in just the first thirty pages.  The remaining four hundred pages explore several other plot lines and lead to a character list of almost fifty people, most of them stereotypes.   A sweet ten-year-old Russian boy, Sasha Bobkov, who has been caretaker for his alcoholic mother, is suddenly kidnapped with the aid of another boy with whom he has been doing football tricks near his apartment in London.  Blindfolded and isolated, Sasha is desperate, as is his father Andrei Bobkov, who eventually receives a message demanding a huge ransom.  Bobkov was a friend of Alex Tereshchenko, a Russian who was poisoned by polonium in London and died a horrible death, a plot line obviously modeled on the real case of Alexander Litvinenko and inserted here for no apparent reason.  Since Bobkov has had intimate dealings with the FSB, the successor to the KGB, he knows just how far the Russians will go to get what they want, as the story line veers into the machinations of the Russian spy apparatus in London.  Meanwhile, El Osito’s plans in Spain to bypass the Mexican drug cartel and deal directly with the Colombians become even more complex, while Amy’s frantic parents continue their search.

Alexander Litvinenko, killed by polonium poisoning after escaping to the UK, where he worked actively for MI5 and MI6. Alex Tereshchenko is modeled after him.

I was in the mood for a quick-paced action novel/thriller, and You Will Never Find Me certainly met that need, but I had hoped that the novel would be more tightly organized than it was, with greater attention paid to motivations and more analysis of the alternatives which the characters had open to them.  Here their actions seemed pre-programmed to meet the needs of plot, rather than as direct outcomes of their personalities and backgrounds.  While there is some development to the major characters, these characters sometimes get lost in the shuffle among dozens of undeveloped peripheral characters so similar that keeping them straight became problematic – I eventually had to create a character list so I could keep track.  The novel sprawls, moving quickly in different directions, seemingly at random, and the large number of plots creates confusion, rather than levels of complication.

The Old Consumption Hospital, now an elegant apartment building, where Amy lived with her grandmother Esme for the last week before her disappearance. Photo by Lindy Newman

Somehow these seemingly unrelated plot lines do come together in a conclusion which depends largely on surprise and coincidence, rather than on carefully created interconnections.  The action, sometimes bloody and shockingly vicious, never wanes, however, and the scenes change every two or three pages, keeping the reader energized and involved, though sometimes flipping pages to avoid getting lost.  The final scene, a denouement which takes place six months after the last big action scene, is disappointingly sentimental and clichéd.  In one of the great ironies, a literary agent tells Bobkov (see opening quotation) that publishing crime fiction in Africa, South America and Russia didn’t work because “they were all too surreal; nobody would be able to suspend their disbelief.”  I had similar problems with this novel, set in London and Spain.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo appears on https://www.hachette.com.au

Barajas Airport, Madrid, designed by Richard Rogers, is Amy’s destination upon first leaving home.  https://kirinrin.wordpress.com/

The photo of Alexander Litvinenko is from Wikipedia:  https://en.wikipedia.org

The Old Consumption Hospital, now converted into very elegant apartments, was home to Esme, Amy’s grandmother, with whom Amy was staying in the last week before she left home.  Photo by Lindy Newman.  http://thevirtualtourofhampstead.co.uk

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