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THE MAINTENANCE OF HEADWAY

Nearly flawless in its own unassuming way.

Set within the bureaucracy of the London bus system, Mills’ slim novel fuses whimsy with warped logic.

Bus drivers must remain committed to the Maintenance of Headway—“The notion that a fixed interval between buses on a regular service can be attained and adhered to”—even when it seems absurd. Consider a moment when the narrator’s bus is running early. What does he do? He disregards his current passengers and fakes engine problems. Another bus driver even stops to help him, and together, they stage an animated discussion and walk around the engine thoughtfully until a proper amount of time has passed. No real plot here—rather, a series of vignettes that demonstrate the kind of bureaucratic logic that’s warped because it’s so airtight yet so small-minded. Mills—who's been a bus driver himself—has written a fantastically odd novel, full of great details (a TV at the bus station that's been stuck on the same channel for four years) and walk-on characters (like Mrs. Barker, who creates chaos by stopping anywhere—including green traffic lights—to pick up passengers). Mills (Explorers of the New Century, 2005, etc.) avoids revealing anything personal about his characters: even his narrator lacks a life outside the all-consuming absurdity of his work. In a long novel, this might get tiresome, but Mills has written a slender book and made each sentence feel harried, peculiar. There’s bizarre logic: “The idea of curtailing bus journeys in order to provide a better bus service defied logic, but needless to say, the Board of Transport had a logic all of its own.” There’s bureaucratic pseudo-science: beyond the titular reference, there’s also the Theory of Early Running and the Law of Cumulative Lateness. It’s a comic complaint—whimsical, but pointed.

Nearly flawless in its own unassuming way.

Pub Date: May 19, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-63286-036-1

Page Count: 160

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: Feb. 16, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2015

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ABSOLUTE POWER

The mother of all presidential cover-ups is the centerpiece gimmick in this far-fetched thriller from first-novelist Baldacci, a Washington-based attorney. In the dead of night, while burgling an exurban Virginia mansion, career criminal Luther Whitney is forced to conceal himself in a walk-in closet when Christine Sullivan, the lady of the house, arrives in the bedroom he's ransacking with none other than Alan Richmond, President of the US. Through the one-way mirror, Luther watches the drunken couple engage in a bout of rough sex that gets out of hand, ending only when two Secret Service men respond to the Chief Executive's cries of distress and gun down the letter-opener-wielding Christy. Gloria Russell, Richmond's vaultingly ambitious chief of staff, orders the scene rigged to look like a break-in and departs with the still befuddled President, leaving Christy's corpse to be discovered at another time. Luther makes tracks as well, though not before being spotted on the run by agents from the bodyguard detail. Aware that he's shortened his life expectancy, Luther retains trusted friend Jack Graham, a former public defender, but doesn't tell him the whole story. When Luther's slain before he can be arraigned for Christy's murder, Jack concludes he's the designated fall guy in a major scandal. Meanwhile, little Gloria (together with two Secret Service shooters) hopes to erase all tracks that might lead to the White House. But the late Luther seems to have outsmarted her in advance with recurrent demands for hush money. The body count rises as Gloria's attack dogs and Jack search for the evidence cunning Luther's left to incriminate not only a venal Alan Richmond but his homicidal deputies. The not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper climax provides an unsurprising answer to the question of whether a US president can get away with murder. For all its arresting premise, an overblown and tedious tale of capital sins. (Film rights to Castle Rock; Book-of-the-Month selection)

Pub Date: Jan. 18, 1996

ISBN: 0-446-51996-0

Page Count: 480

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1995

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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