December 8, 2019

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Chain reaction

McKinty mulls moral dilemmas in fast-paced kidnapping thriller

Leah Garrett</p><p>Adrian McKinty’s novel, The Chain, races along at breakneck speed in 77 crisp, tense chapters.</p>

Leah Garrett

Adrian McKinty’s novel, The Chain, races along at breakneck speed in 77 crisp, tense chapters.

Of the current crop of "high concept" summer thrillers, The Chain is the highest — so high that Irish-born author Adrian McKinty probably had to parachute down to his desk every morning to work on the plot.

Remember those chain letters that blotched the internet in the 1990s? These emails promised good fortune or increasing wealth when the recipient passed the emotionally manipulative message on. If the recipient broke the chain, however, bad luck or even physical harm would result. The Chain is a sinister and deadly extrapolation on that concept.

In this chain, the villains set up a scheme in which parents of abducted young children are forced to pay a ransom, but also must capture and hide someone else’s child who will then be ransomed after another fee is paid and a child is kidnapped, etc., etc., etc. If the parents break the chain, go to the police or try to figure out who the perpetrators are, their child will be viciously murdered along with the parents and the rest of their family.

Too diabolically ingenious, you say — preposterous, even. But it’s compulsively page-turning and scary nonetheless.

As if to stretch credibility to the breaking point, McKinty endows the main character, Rachel, with an overload of sympathetic qualities. She’s a recent divorcée from a philandering husband, a cancer survivor whose cancer might be returning, an existential philosophy prof whose first job at a community college is in jeopardy, and a guilt-ridden single parent of a feisty and therefore dangerous only child, Kylie, who has been kidnapped.

Despite all these qualities, Rachel is more of a plot device than a three-dimensional character. She merely functions to move the story along briskly.

To help recover her daughter, Rachel has to be ruthless — to "Lady Macbeth it." Obviously, that’s not enough. So she enlists her ex-husband’s brother, an ex-Marine with PTSD and a heroin habit, now living off the grid but skilled in tracking, computer hacking, and weaponry. What better sidekick could there be to force the story beyond rescuing a child to confronting the villains?

Fortunately, McKinty is a gifted writer with plenty of awards to his credit: two Edgars (for best paperback original novels, awarded by the Mystery Writers of America) as well as a Barry Award and a Ned Kelly Award, both for best crime novel.

The Chain races along at breakneck speed in 77 crisp, readable, tense chapters.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t have nearly as much ironic wit as McKinty deployed in his Michael Forsyth trilogy or his Sean Duffy series. And the plot seems constructed rather than imagined; it hurries along tersely rather than playing out thoughtfully. It’s as if he had to pare back the story to its beach-read essentials.

In the process, the ethical dilemma is slighted. The question of the conflict between doing what’s necessary yet morally objectionable is sacrificed in favour of the harrowing, unsettling action. "It’s the most evil you can possibly do," Rachel the philosophy prof muses, "but it has to be done." That’s as far as McKinty goes.

As Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho made people worry about taking showers and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws made them scared about swimming in the ocean, The Chain will make you wonder what you should do to protect or rescue a child or grandchild. It may keep you and your kids off Facebook, Twitter and Instagram forever, and it’ll make you even more wary of Bitcoin and the dark web. It may even get you to put GPS trackers in your kids’ shoes.

The Chain is highly-charged fun. If you’re a literary acrophobe (put off by high concept novels), however, this is probably not the book for you.

Gene Walz is not a literary acrophobe.

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