"A complex, out-of-the-ordinary thriller loaded with worldly characters."– Kirkus Reviews
Fulbright’s (The Man with a Charmed Life, 2014) novel details a hostage situation and the mysterious information it uncovers.
When Phil Harrington and his partners decide to take hostages, their reasoning is altruistic. Calling themselves New METRO—“Because we aim to give new meaning to our city’s underground system through those five letters M, E, T, R, O: Meaningful Endeavour To Reach Out. To reach out to London’s homeless and dispossessed”—the group hatches a scheme that involves Uzis and a crowded London theater. Without spilling any blood, they successfully capture the prime minister’s son, among others in the theater. The group feels they might be on to something, despite some less than supportive press—“West End madmen tell Hastings: Help the homeless or we kill your son,” one headline reads; “Semtex suicide sadists sabotage Stoppard,” says another—which they dismiss as “right-wing garbage.” After one of the kidnapping collaborators discovers a vault connecting to the theater, the story takes a strange turn. It’s full of invaluable art as well as a mysterious casket. Could its contents redefine history? Heavy on word count (at 600-plus pages) and wordplay—“ ‘Selling Oyster cards?’ said Devonshire. ‘Must have been where he got his pearl of a brainwave’ ” —the story features cultivated characters discussing sophisticated subjects. “Whatever you may care to believe to the contrary,” a hostage says, “a smutty 20th century magazine purveying toilet-door plautitudes (sic) is not the ideal source for glosses to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.” With mentions of everything from Kramskoi’s Christ in the Wilderness to Goethe’s Faust to the Septuagint, the frequent dialogue is dense with cultural references and educated assertions, often with a lighthearted touch. The value of such references relies largely on the reader’s tolerance for remarks such as “Methinks he was flatulent. Difficult to dazzle students with the square on your hypotenuse, while you’re producing fragrant ellipses from your anus.”
A complex, out-of-the-ordinary thriller loaded with worldly characters.
In Fulbright’s (Driving Mad, 2014) thriller, the real threat during the Cold War in the 1980s is the French president, who claims to have a weapon capable of shifting the balance of global power.
Henry Wright, an Englishman working in Brussels, is recruited by a secret U.S. intelligence agency. Henry is employed as an interpreter, a relatively painless job, but distrust within the states puts the man in peril. John Heldring, head of IBIS, a commodities-trading group that’s really a front for the Pentagon and State Department’s covert operations, for one, thinks Henry is a Pentagon spy and goes gunning for him. Superpowers America and the USSR, meanwhile, are understandably nervous when Henri Fouquet, France’s president, announces that French scientists have created bombs that can generate a devastating electromagnetic pulse. Mark Tollworth, a man from the Foundation for the Rescue and Restitution of Collected Objets d’Art, promises Henry a safe return to Brussels and a $250,000 paycheck if he simply delivers a message to Fouquet. The fascinating titular protagonist is the antithesis of a typical literary hero: he is seemingly unqualified for counterintelligence (agents erroneously suspect him of espionage), and he avoids the majority of gunfire, as Henry himself admits, by sheer luck. He’s also habitually contentious, mocking American slang and complaining about the tea at Starbucks. Fortunately, the story is rife with characters even more absorbing than Henry, especially Clem Haight, who essentially becomes one of Henry’s bodyguards, and former KGB assassin (and knife-throwing circus performer) Dmitri Zhukhovsky. The intelligent prose and sporadic (but welcome) action sequences are too often sidelined by incidental scenes; e.g., Henry and others have a trivial discussion of his name’s origin. But the characters’ delightfully ambiguous motives and backgrounds make distinguishing good or bad guys a near impossibility, giving the story an atmosphere of perennial unease. Not everyone is as good at steering clear of bullets as Henry, so the novel loses a few characters before it’s over. The author likewise leaves the ending wide open for a potential sequel.
Henry is indelible, and Fulbright smartly surrounds him with equally memorable characters in this exceptional outing.