Avon, 1998, 388 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-72880-X
Fiction does not operate according to the usual laws of reality. Life seldom makes up interesting stories and that’s why, from stone-age shaman onward, making up compelling fiction has always required creative interpretations of how things usually happen.
The protagonist is a good person who struggles in search of his goal. After difficulties, lovers end up together. Bad persons are punished. While not ironclad, these “rules” drive most of modern fiction. You’re familiar with them from years and years of novels, films and other stories.
Sub-genres acquire their own dramatic conventions, which occasionally make them impenetrable to newcomers. Thrillers are no exception. After reading a few dozen of them, patterns start to emerge and readers may demand bigger surprises in order to be satisfied.
Ironically, there are such things are expected surprises. A novel with twists and turns can start to be repetitive; any character whose body isn’t certifiably autopsied is liable to come back “from the dead”, any friend is a possible traitor and every government agency has squads of murderous operatives. It becomes possible to guess the next big twist simply by asking ourselves “What’s the worst that could happen at this point?” A lawyer asking himself if his client committed the crime isn’t much of a story if the client isn’t actually guilty as hell. (See, oh, films from JAGGED EDGE to PRIMAL FEAR, whose “twist” is given in the first line of dialogue.)
Joseph Finder’s High Crimes is an enjoyable, but generally predictable thriller whose final twist is self-obvious whenever you ask yourself “What would be most interesting?” It then proceeds straight into ludicrous absurdity, but by this time, you’re only two pages away from the end, so you might as well finish the whole thing. Even if you’ll still end up with a few unanswered questions.
This being said, the setup is interesting; a renowned attorney is stunned when her husband, theoretically an economist, is hunted down by the military for a war atrocity trial. He insists that he’s innocent and she agrees to defend him at a court-martial. Powerful forces from the Pentagon do everything they can to distance the trial from a few high-ranking officers. Who’s lying, the husband or the brass?
What the novel lacks in overall surprise, it gains in sharp writing and solid details. Our heroine has to learn the intricacies of martial law at the same time as we do, and the result is a fascinating trip through an area few readers know about. Characters are presented efficiently, sometime too quickly, and developed with an adequate amount of care. The dialogue is witty and natural. The pacing drags a bit, especially in the beginning (just get the suspect in custody and go on with the story!), but it gets better and for all its little problems, High Crimes doesn’t become boring.
It might even be unintentionally comical in its frantic effort to keep our interest. Aside from the inherent fascination of court-martial procedures and special-operation details, Findley piles up increasingly extreme events regardless of if the story calls for it. The setups are sometime so laborious as to be offensive, such as with the whole chapters leading up to the apprehension. A few latter sequences, like the car sabotage, scream “cheap thrill!” more than they suggest an organic plot development. But given that they’re eventually inconsequential to the overall dramatic arc, most of these cheap thrills remain meaningless.
But that’s all part of dramatic logic, where the bad guys are notoriously inconsistent in their desire to kill off the protagonists. Dramatic logic -where the best friends are in fact the best enemies and the most unexpected twists become mandatory- is the real main character in High Crimes. It’s a good testimony of Finder’s professionalism that his novel can sustain interest despite holding few genuine surprises.