Archives for category: thriller

Gone GirlAt first I thought it was very good (but not as good as everyone’s been saying), then I thought I knew what was going to happen (and I kind of got it right), then I read the second half in a single sitting with a permanently disturbed look on my face, thinking ‘this is nuts’ over and over.

I don’t really know what to say. I feel like I can’t say a single thing about how I felt about the characters without giving everything away. I can’t really say much about the plot either. So how do I write a review? I guess I’ll just keep it short.

On their fifth wedding anniversary Nick’s wife, Amy, goes missing. There are signs of a struggle. When something happens to the wife the husband is always the prime suspect. And this case is no exception. Nick and Amy have been having problems, especially since leaving Manhattan for Missouri to be closer to Nick’s sick parents. Not only does Nick not have an alibi but he isn’t behaving like a grief-stricken husband should. And then there are the strange phone calls he’s been getting.

Gillian Flynn has written Gone Girl in the form of diary entries, switching between Amy’s diary and Nick’s. Amy and Nick’s version of events are conflicting so there’s no telling truth from lie. No one is above suspicion. They’re classic unreliable narrators (Nick more obviously so, he admits he’s lying but doesn’t say what about). Who do you believe? Does it simply come down to who’s more likeable?

Gone Girl is just one of those books that are worth reading, even if you’re not that into thrillers. Just to be able to discuss it with your friends. The second half, in particular, is what the term page-turner was invented for. Flynn clearly has fun with her tale while also posing a lot of provocative questions about relationships, men versus women, and opposites attracting. Flynn’s conception of the ‘Cool Girl’ is enough on its own to start a heated debate. Gone Girl is essentially about the break-down of a marriage. So many of the issues that plague Nick and Amy are things lots of couples go through. Except this is far from the story of a regular couple.

With Gone Girl Flynn brilliantly tackles the world of dangerous psychological games. I only had one little problem. For me, the ending strained believability. I mentioned that I sort of guessed what was going to happen but not to worry, the strength of Gone Girl’s thrill doesn’t all come from the mystery aspect. Flynn has also expertly mined the thrill of catastrophe, the thrill of being unable to tear your eyes away.


A Common LossI’m in two minds about A Common Loss, which is probably the worst position to be in when I’m trying to get my opinion across, at least somewhat, coherently.

The plot is vaguely reminiscent of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. College friends, chilling secrets. If you want to read A Common Loss because of the surface similarity – don’t. You’ll just be disappointed. There are five college friends – Dylan, Elliot (our narrator), Cameron, Brian and Tallis – who each year reunite for a trip to Las Vegas. Over the years they’ve grown apart, Cameron and Brian don’t even speak to each other anymore, but they still go to Vegas every year. This year’s trip is different. It’s the first since Dylan’s tragic death. He was the charismatic one, the mediator, the fixer. But Dylan was also manipulative, collecting and cataloguing his four friends’ darkest secrets. And now someone is using those secrets to blackmail them.

There’s plenty to admire in Sydney-based Kirsten Tranter’s second novel, the rest I didn’t hate, just didn’t love. A Common Loss is an interesting exploration of grief and the complexities of adult friendships (and the dark side of them). It falls into the psychological drama category; it’s not quite a thriller. It’s this quality that could tip it into boring but, while it is intellectual and contemplative, it held my attention. For a lot of the novel the balance between drama and thriller was handled quite well. There were chunks where I couldn’t put it down because I felt that something big was coming, it was building to a revelation, but at times the tension flagged.

As a main character, Elliot generally worked well. He’s a bit timid, introverted and unsure but he’s intelligent. I thought his feelings about his college friends, his choice of work, how he handles relationships, were insightful and relatable. He’s the observer of the group, detached from the infighting. It makes sense for him to be our guide to the group’s dynamic. Sometimes he’s too contemplative though, over-thinking everything.

Tranter is a fairly astute chronicler of human behaviour, and much of what she had to say resonated with me, while some things missed the mark. Elliot sort of, almost, has romances with two women – Natasha, a work colleague, and Cynthia, Brian’s girlfriend who accompanies them on their trip. The interaction between Elliot and Cynthia could easily have been overplayed but it was well judged. Same goes with the scenes with Natasha and him. Both women are strong, and not prone to overanalysing, perfect foils for Elliot. The romantic tension is palpable but isn’t overdone, and it so easily could have gone into cringe territory.

I thought Elliot’s female relationships were handled better than the male friendships. You can’t avoid seeing the gay undertones that accompany their intimacy. And given that it’s openly acknowledged that the other characters thought Dylan and Elliot were having a sexual relationship simply because of their closeness (and that’s not the only combination of partners suspected) I guess that must have been what Kirsten Tranter was aiming for. It’s a real pity, I would’ve liked her to take a less obvious path in her portrayal of male closeness.

I liked the Las Vegas setting a lot. Its slick, trashiness was a character in itself. Cynthia’s graduate work looking at fake versus authentic in culture is interesting but it’s a bit of a blunt way to push the idea that the tacky glitz of Vegas hiding its seedy, dirty underbelly is the perfect metaphor for the larger story – charismatic, showy Dylan was the perfect friend but beneath that sheen he dealt in blackmail and grubby secrets.

Every now and then the plot felt secondary to Tranter’s thematic exploration. It seems to me like they should have just gone to the police. All four of them had secrets that would be damaging to their reputation (lost jobs, wives and girlfriends that might never forgive them) but wouldn’t get them arrested. Being blackmailed is obviously a stressful and problematic situation but I couldn’t shake the feeling that sometimes the group were being overly dramatic.

Then there’s the car crash that happened when they were in college. Yes, undoubtedly a traumatic event at the time, but no one had more than a cut and some whiplash. To continue to be haunted by the memory, to have nightmares about it, a decade later seems silly. This car crash is mentioned over and over, imbued with gratuitous meaning.

In college Elliot tries to write an essay on Tennyson’s In Memoriam. Now I’m as baffled by poetry as most people, and apparently so was Elliot. He’s struggling to write the essay, spending a week as a hermit reading book after book about Tennyson and related topics to no avail. Elliot’s clearly a smart, and generally level-headed, guy; he goes on to become a professor at a prestigious college (English drama being his specialty). To have such a freak out about one undergraduate essay seems melodramatic (speaking as someone who’s written several literature essays that I was underprepared for). What transpires becomes the basis for the secret that Dylan could hold over him, so it’s relevant to the plot, but it didn’t quite feel believable.

Colin, the blackmailer, was excellently strange, a disturbing mix of courteous and psychotic. The scenes with him were fascinating. He has a way of talking to the group like he really admires them and they’re just doing him a favour:

I’m talking about opportunities. College, and beyond. Tallis, you could really help me with opportunities in the business sector. And Brian – I have some great ideas for scripts. For films. I’d really like to get your feedback.

Colin threatens them all with ruin, yet he needs them to like him, he wants them to be tied to him. But then the end fizzled. They dealt with Colin in a fairly uninspiring way. And ultimately nothing had really changed. In the closing moments Tallis says to Elliot, ‘Flash place, this. Nice enough. What do you think about staying here next year?’, as if the whole blackmail thing had never happened. So the lack of change was thematically purposeful, but I almost never like endings like that. I felt the same way after watching the ending of the movie Up in the Air – deflated.

GhostI have to admit, I know almost nothing about politics. Yet even I realised that Adam Lang, the charismatic former prime minister of Britain at the centre of Robert Harris’s The Ghost, had to be modelled on Tony Blair. Lang’s similarly close relationship with the United States’ government during the war on terror was enough to convince me, despite not knowing the finer details of Blair’s political career. A lot of discussion of The Ghost has focused on Harris’s obvious distaste for Tony Blair, as seen through his portrayal of Adam Lang. As someone who doesn’t follow politics, I don’t think it really matters either way to readers’ enjoyment whether or not Lang is a satirical drawing (or straight-up indictment) of Blair, especially since in the later parts fiction and reality greatly diverge.

The unnamed narrator of The Ghost is a cynical ghostwriter with no interest in politics, who usually ghosts memoirs of has-been rock stars, footballers and starlets. Although seemingly unsuitable, he gets the job of ghosting the autobiography of Lang after the sudden death of the narrator’s predecessor, long-time aide to Lang, Mike McAra. He drowned in the freezing waters around Martha’s Vineyard under suspicious circumstances. In order to meet the deadline of producing a complete manuscript in a month’s time Lang’s new ghostwriter is sent to meet him at a secluded Martha’s Vineyard mansion during the midst of winter. As they start work on the memoir news breaks that Adam Lang is to be charged with war crimes for aiding the CIA during the war on terror.

During the first half the pressure slowly mounts. The death of Mike McAra, the war crimes tribunal, the foreboding isolation and violence of Martha’s Vineyard in the winter, all build tension brilliantly, but it could all so easily be coincidence instead of signal conspiracy. The tone of the first part is almost more deadpan political satire, with the narrator the outsider exposing the absurdity of Lang and his inner circle. Eventually The Ghost develops into a fast-paced thriller, with characters ready to kill to protect their secrets and a main character who knows too much but can never be sure who he can trust. It has all the standard elements of the thriller genre but still manages to be clever and exciting. The first half has more wit and biting humour, while the second propels you towards the end, desperate to know how it finishes.

The narrator is likeable, in an acerbic loner kind of way. He’s far from a hero, almost passively following the leads. Harris’s writing is at its strongest when he’s harnessing his ghost writer’s cranky, sarcastic voice: ‘A book unwritten is a delightful universe of infinite possibilities…Set down one sentence and it’s halfway to being just like every other bloody book that’s ever been written.’ He’s quick to imagine he’s in the midst of a conspiracy but reluctant to believe he could actually be right. I like his reluctance, it’s believable. The ex-prime minister Adam Lang is charming but weak and hollow. He had absolutely no interest in politics until his early twenties and runs every decision past his calculating, smarter wife, Ruth. Amelia Bly, Lang’s spokeswoman, largely comes across as hard and unnecessarily mean, perhaps to give the impression that there’s more to her than meets the eye. After all, red herrings have always been a staple of thrillers.

I did find the book lacked an emotional centre. The characters are all too detached, too jaded. I cared about the story, about finding out how it all ends, but not so much about the people. Despite this, The Ghost is a tense, intelligent thriller, and even before the action really takes off I was fascinated by the world of political intrigue. In the end, Harris’s book is not only about politics but about power – the desire to attain it and the unyielding will required to keep it.