Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The Expats by Chris Pavone

I don't normally review books on the blog, they are usually too short and just get posted at Amazon and Goodreads. But I've thought a little more about Chris Pavone's The Expats, which has been riding high at the top of the thriller charts for weeks now, but I think it's because of the 20p price tag, rather than the writing...

I just don't quite know where to start with The Expats. A great idea, let down a bit by some over-done writing and inconsistent characterisation - but the really dodgy part is the way it's been structured.

There is a relatively straight-forward and entertaining story here about an ex-CIA agent and a major white collar crime, but you wouldn't know it to read the book. The timeline is all over the place, with little or no indication of when many of the scenes are set until very late into them. This is just plain frustrating. It might work if you read it all in one go on a beach, but I didn't. I read a little each evening and I very quickly got tired of trying to keep track, and gave up and went with the flow... skipping a lot just to get to the end to find the resolution.

The other problem is that the book lacks big tense scenes of the kind that a good thriller needs - think Jack Reacher going into battle at the end of a Lee Child book. Chris Pavone seems unable to hit these heights, and I can't help thinking that he's tried to hide this deficiency with the convoluted narrative.

If you do read it, when you get to the end think back through the major events and you'll see that there's a potentially great thriller here, but written in a single timeline from multiple viewpoints - loads of tension could have been extracted by letting the reader know more than the characters, with a lot of excitement to be had watching these people car crash into disaster.

Or not. And boy don't get me started on that ending, what a let-down... but I won't spoil it for you, just in case I haven't put you off!

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Plotting After Powder Burn – Part 3

In a blog called Plotting After Powder Burn - Part 1 I talked about the search for a plot for my fifth novel, which would be the second in a series starring American wannabe-journo, Sam Blackett. I’d always had a particular story in mind for this second book, but I was worried that it had similarities to the 'Janac's Games' stories, and I felt I should make a break from those boat-and-action dominated tales.

I finished Part 2 concerned that the second book should be more urban, and more of an investigation than an action thriller. I went off to find out what Lee Child did with Jack Reacher in books one and two, as this series is the model for the Sam Blackett stories. Well, it took a while - and there's been a few blogs floated under the bridge on other topics since then - but I'm finally back to thinking about plotting after Powder Burn.

I can report that Lee Child started the Jack Reacher series with Killing Floor, written in the first person about a counterfeiting fraud set in a small town in Georgia, and mixing action with investigation. He followed that up with Die Trying, which switched to the third person but maintained the mix of action and investigation.

Powder Burn is mostly action with the mystery-element relegated to a relatively minor role - and so I think I definitely need to introduce more of an investigative storyline to the Sam Blackett series in the second book. I've also thought a lot about the milieu for this story and I now feel even more strongly that I should try and find an urban setting for the book, to help me break out of the ghetto of 'sailing author' that I fear I'm in danger of drowning in...

So far so good - now any decent investigation needs a murder, preferably linked to a serious criminal conspiracy. I've been casting around for just such a conspiracy and I think I've found it. There's always been a huge market in counterfeit aircraft parts; they look and feel like the real thing, but are often made much more cheaply from sub-standard materials with low-cost manufacturing techniques. Consequently, they don't have anything like the same life span as the real deal.

This fact might worry you if you fly a lot, but while the safety hazards of this fake parts trade has been well known for a while, there now appears to be a national security risk too - the trade has spread to military aircraft. This is the sort of criminal conspiracy a good thriller needs - a gang plotting to make a fortune from selling fake parts to the USAF for the F-22 Raptor, the planet's most expensive fighter?

Or, maybe it's drone parts - these things are much more controversial (anyone been watching Homeland?) and that might really ramp the story up. It also plays into a theme I've been thinking about for a while: Western military supremacy relies on cheap and effective offensive dominance. It used to be gunboats, and machine guns against spears. These tools provided such a massive military advantage that they enabled the use of force at a minimal cost of lives - vitally important to politicians in a democracy.

The drone strike is the modern version of this, allowing the US to use swift and brutal violence at zero (direct risk) of US casualties. So what if the fake parts conspiracy threatened the drones, and this politically vital means of applying American power in the hot spots of the world? I can feel my story juices already starting to flow...

At the very least this is a good starting point - the next step is to work out how Sam Blackett might stumble into this conspiracy... but perhaps I should end the 'Plotting After Powder Burn' blogs right here, before I spoil the final book for you - or until this story idea crashes and burns in development hell...