Ken MacRae, June 24, 2010 (view all comments by Ken MacRae)
William Boyd - one of my favourite authors, London's Chelsea - one of my favourite locations, and a very interesting plot: what's not to like. Well, you might find yourself feeling distinctly uncomfortable - as I was - by imagining yourself unaccountably broke and homeless and wanted by the police, which was the situation Adam found himself in through no fault of his own. I don't actually like Chelsea enough to want to be homeless there, but Adam pulled it off. One detail I liked: the Church of John Christ was a bit of a twist on Monty Python's concept in the 'Life of Brian'. I'm sure that there is at least one movie in this book.
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In this suspenseful story, set in a backdrop of big-Pharma corporate sordidness, a pharmaceutical firm Calenture-Deutz based in London is on the verge of bringing an unprecedented anti-asthma drug Zembla-4 to market. Their renown researcher Philip Wang practically stumbled into his discovery, but has led the effort to establish its effectiveness through numerous test trials. It’s not too surprising to see a predatory competitor circling. The opportunity to make billions with an exclusionary patent drives an even larger big-Pharma firm in a takeover attempt. But very serious complications have arisen. People in the test trials have been dying unexpectedly, the fact of which has been well concealed by complicit medical and administrative personnel. But Wang is a scientist, not a fat-cat, with a predisposition to truthfulness. When he threatens to expose the cover-up, he is assassinated by a cold-blooded operative from a clandestine firm composed of crack ex-military types (can we say, Blackwater) that exists to clean-up such unpleasant messiness for soulless entities, like corporations.
It is at this point that the novel takes off on a harrowing, if not improbable, journey of survival and discovery, with any number of digressions into London life, much of it on the seamy side. Adam Kindred, a scandalized PhD climatologist, has just returned to London after several years in the US for a job interview, hoping to recover his life. Instead of renewal, his life takes a dramatic change for the worse. A kind deed on Adam’s part to return a sheaf of papers after a chance encounter in a restaurant finds Dr. Wang with a knife in his ribcage and the killer apparently lurking in the apartment. Adam does the rash, stupid thing and runs, knowing that his fingerprints are on the knife and that he signed the guest register in the lobby – in his mind, overwhelming evidence. So begins a dicey, months-long life of changing identities and appearances, hiding in a thicket along the Thames where he bathes and even eats a captured bird, posing as a blindman/beggar, accepting church meals after agonizingly long sermons, living with a street-walker and her young son who she keeps drugged in a notorious London slum, and assuming the purchased identity of a fellow church attendee when he suddenly overdoses and then taking his job as a hospital porter. The relentlessness of the assassin makes all this movement necessary, as he patiently tracks Adam using money and violence to come ever closer.
A couple of other appealing characters appear. While it is hard to commiserate with CEOs, Ingram Frazer, the head of Calenture-Deutz and a man of some integrity, is being subtly shoved aside by ruthless execs, kept in the dark of the scheme to gain acceptance of a drug with lethal implications. His comfortable life is also being assaulted by some increasingly frequent signs of health problems. Rita Nashe is an attractive veteran policewoman assigned to the unit that patrols the Thames. She keeps intersecting with Adam, though usually indirectly, such as investigating a complaint of a protected bird being killed. Achieving some level of confidence in being armed with an official ID declaring himself to be Primo Belem, Adam actually meets Rita when he comes forward to identify a deceased woman from a sketch in the newspaper, the victim of a violent assault. Interestingly, the chemistry between Adam and Rita is pretty much immediate with a relationship developing - probing questions not being pursued. The recovery of the renamed Adam is further evidenced as he translates his job into a mission of accessing hospital personnel and data to dig into the damaging information that Wang had been carrying.
While this novel is hardly of the non-stop action variety, the plot moves along fairly well with a certain amount of timing that is fortuitous for Adam. The author’s probing of the underside of London, the somewhat unsettled life of Rita, and corporate personalities and machinations adds substance without much cost to flow. Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the novel is the fizzling out of most of the interesting threads. Any tidy or justice-laden endings will have to wait for another day.
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by Harper Collins,
“William Boyd seems singularly blessed with both an innate love of storytelling and the talent to render those stories in swift, confident prose.” —The New York Times
From William Boyd, award-winning author of Brazzaville Beach and Restless, comes a stunning literary mystery about crime and punishment: Ordinary Thunderstorms. One of the most accomplished writers of our time, Boyd has written a profound and gripping novel about the fragility of social identity, the corruption at the heart of big business, and the secrets that lie hidden in the filthy underbelly of every city.
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