Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd

January 25, 2011

Graham Greene famously divided his fiction into “novels” and “entertainments”, the former being driven by literary ambition and the latter driven by plot. Greene eventually stopped making the distinction, perhaps because “entertainments” such as Brighton Rock had gained respect for their literary merit. More recently, literary novelist John Banville generated controversy by stating in an interview that he was “slumming it” when he wrote crime fiction under the pseudonym “Benjamin Black”. Of course, to hear the insult you need bat ears and a fragile ego, but that’s basically what he said. How else to interpret Banville’s statement that, as himself, he “writes painfully slow while [Black] is fluent and fast”?

William Boyd is slightly younger and has probably learned from his elder’s mistakes. As far as I know, he did not claim to write his thriller Ordinary Thunderstorms with any speed or notably fluency. I, of course, have no idea about his writing speed. But I will tell you, Boyd is remarkably fluent in English (I will admit to, uh, refreshing my recollection of both “bosky” and susurrus” by page two). I hope Dudley Edwards does not find out about Boyd’s wanton fluency.

Adam Kindred, a distinguished climatologist, starts things off by crossing Chelsea Bridge after interviewing for a university job. Adam, recently expelled from marriage to an American woman, has come to the new-to-him city of London to start afresh. Adam has “no idea how his life is about to change in the next few hours – massively, irrevocably – no idea at all.” But first, Adam surveys the river and muses that it is “odd how…instincts mysteriously drive you.”

Adam’s instincts take him to a small Italian restaurant where he strikes up a conversation with Dr. Philip Wang, an allergist. When Dr. Wang leaves a folder of documents behind, Adam decides to bring the file to Wang himself because “it seemed a friendly and helpful thing to do.” Wang never gets the folder back, instead dying from a knife to the chest. The police think Adam, the last man known to have seen Wang, is the murderer. Adam chooses to go underground rather than try to explain the curious circumstances which resulted in Adam’s prints ending up on the murder weapon.

It wasn’t ‘respect for the law’ that seemed to him paramount and fundamental, any more. No: it was freedom that governed this instinctive choice – his personal freedom. He had to stay free, at all costs, if he were to save himself, somehow. To remain free seemed the only course of action he could and should take. It was odd, this philosophical epiphany, but he was immediately aware that the individual freedom he currently possessed was unbelievably precious to him – precious because he now realized how tenuous and vulnerable it was – and he did not propose to surrender it to anyone, even temporarily….

He passed a pub on his left and was tempted to go in and drink something but, along with his new belief in personal freedom, he was aware of how expensive everything was in this city – he had to hoard his remaining funds as he figured out what to do next while he waited for the real guilty man to be identified and apprehended.

To complicate matters, Adam is pursued both by the police and by a hitman. The police are largely faceless except for Rita Nashe, who stumbled upon the body in the first place. Rita is a young constable who soon transfers to the Marine Support Unit (MSU). This being a thriller, the transfer away from the unit involved in the investigation of the murder brings her more thickly into the plot. Boyd handles this with aplomb, making the confluence of Nashe’s life and the story seem natural, as if Boyd was reporting on an interesting development rather than manufacturing a coincidence. This is a thriller, but a thriller written by an outstanding writer.

The hitman is a nicely full character whose interaction with the plot needs no finessing once Adam stumbles on his handywork. Adam is a loose end and Jonjo is a professional. Jonjo is not quite as frighteningly relentless (and psychotic) as Cormac McCarthy’s Chigurhh, but he is very good at what he does and not at all reluctant to use whatever means are required.

Being underground, Adam interacts with a number of interesting characters, including Mhouse, a prostitute. Mhouse plays a significant role in the story and, through Boyd’s skill, remains more interesting than cliched.

The documents Philip Wang has left behind relate to a drug, Zembla-4, that is on the fast track to approval after purportedly success clinical trials. The head of the pharmaceutical company that owns the rights to Zembla-4, Ingram Fryzer, is the last major shoulder over which the reader peers. Fryzer and his good for not much brother Ivo both sit on the board of Calenture-Deutz. Their financially-driven machinations provide the insight onto the important of the documents, something the reader learns well before Adam.

Boyd keeps the pace swift, but not breathtakingly so. Danger for Adam is everywhere and, meanwhile, he is on a race to save not only himself but a small subset of mankind. The stakes are appropriately large for a thriller, if not paradigm-shifting. All of which, to my mind, makes this ultimately more satisfying than the average novel in this genre. And Boyd uses that earlier piece about personal freedom and his plot to at least raise some interesting questions about free will, self-determination, and morality.

Perhaps, I am a bit biased given his description of “the potency and reach of the bloggers.” But what surely ruins my objectivity is Zembla-4. Zembla, of course, is the fictional land formerly ruled by Charles Xavier Vsevlav of Nabokov’s Pale Fire. I am nothing if not a sucker for Nabokov references. Once I see one, I think I see them everywhere:

Small flames burned palely on the familiar tartan lining of the trench.

Maybe that one is a stretch.

Boyd does more than shout out to the master of the mid-20th century. He creates characters who are decidedly not easy to love or to hate. Nearly all of them are sufficiently flawed to keep them real and none are so purely evil that they are simply an alien them. Each is bent by his or her chosen profession. To borrow Boyd’s central metaphor, the bending is such that an ordinary thunderstorm mutates into a super-cell storm and thriller fans will be pleased with the destruction wrought.