John Houston is a prodigiously productive thriller writer. Now his wife has been shot at their luxury apartment in Monaco and he is on the run. It sounds like the plot of one of his thrillers. His atelier – the group of ghostwriters who write his thrillers to his specification – meet to discuss the implications. One of them, Don Irvine, is convinced John will contact him for help. Meanwhile the Monaco police are pursing their own lines of enquiry.
This is a very clever book. It gives you a thriller while also deconstructing the thriller genre. As each character considers his next step (and they are all ‘he’, we’re definitely talking male gaze here), they see it through the prism of a crime novel. There are also literary references littered throughout the story as the characters indulge in intellectual one-upmanship (and I mean ‘man’). The workings of the publishing industry are laid bare.
The characters are all deliciously obnoxious. If you want your protagonists to be heroes or role models or friends, then this is not the book for you. Houston is vulgar and boorish. The ghostwriters are affluent by most people’s standards (Irvine owns comfortable properties in Putney and Fowey) but see themselves as hard done by in comparison to Houston. He flaunts all the clichés of excessive wealth – fast cars, luxury homes, an absurdly large watch…
But while Houston mocks his readers for their low literacy levels and addiction to predictable plotting, and views his books as ‘product’, he also researches them impeccably and is fastidious in his editing of the ghosts. There is both mockery of Houston’s factory approach and a respect for the craft. You could argue this ambiguity extends to his readers too – he is, after all, giving them what they want.
I had a couple of reservations. I felt the plot relied overly on the naivety of one of the characters. I kept expecting a further twist that didn’t come. Having said that, the end was thought-provoking. The book also needed a decent edit. There are a few clunky repetitions which could easily have been smoothed away. (Houston would have been on it.) Given that the cover screams ‘international bestseller’ I’m sure the budget could have taken it.
Overall, though, it’s a funny and well-paced thriller, especially if you’re interested in the history of crime fiction as a form.