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by John Williamson

Pub Date: March 13th, 2012
Publisher: Manuscript

In this jet-setting thriller, a fight against an island dictator intersects contemporary concerns of ethnobotany and international law.

Williamson’s debut juggles several plots revolving around the island nation of Santa Carolina, ruled by the despotic Alberto Alvarez. Tired of Alberto’s brutal tyranny, his French-born wife, Marguerite, plans to kidnap their son in order to blackmail Alberto into establishing a constitution, all with the help of her high-powered lawyer–sister and the friendly nuns at an orphanage in Paris. Meanwhile, Alberto joins forces with international pharmaceutical company HardwickeMasterson (HM) to exploit a tropical plant that has antimalarial properties. In hopes of getting compensation for the native tribes, American Rebecca Tenley comes to the island to spy on the pharmaceutical deal, but she quickly finds herself enmeshed in Alvarez family conspiracies, along with the rebels’ plans to overthrow Alberto and the additional mystery of the island’s miraculous cancer clinic. Williamson spins these intertwined plots carefully, mostly keeping the story moving briskly, although a few scenes tend to drag. For instance, a comical but unnecessary subplot about the ne’er-do-wells whom HM press-gangs into finding the plant—a plotline that evaporates halfway through the novel even though readers may wonder why HM would endanger the profitable deal by hiring these screw-ups. Other issues plague the plot: Alberto has a brutal state-security apparatus, but Rebecca calls New York to discuss her schemes without worrying about her phone being tapped; and the various editing mistakes (a dropped “said,” a reference to Spanish fascist “Fernando Franco”) further distract from the action. The novel’s main bug, though, is the thinness of its characters. Marguerite’s sister, Ariane, seems like a flat, tough-as-nails district attorney torn from film noir, and when an ex-military man and Marguerite fall in love, their romance makes sense for the genre, though it’s hard to see what draws the two characters together. Perhaps this thinness isn’t a bug, but a feature: The characters shouldn’t be thought of as flat, but archetypal. Still, when a secret informant takes off his disguise and the private investigator exclaims, “Unmasked!,” it’s hard to tell archetypal from hokey.

Not always successful, but an interesting, frequently entertaining debut.