Jove, 1998, 384 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-515-12429-X
Why do you read thrillers? To be thrilled, obviously. But as with fine cuisine, there is a palette of possible thrills any writer may wish to play with. While some may thirst for tightly wound-up suspense, others may prefer gore, psychological intensity or military hardware.
But take a bunch of experienced thriller fans and they’ll tell you that originality is often the biggest thrill of all. There’s a limit to the number of average serial-killer novels you can read. Even such a powerful concept as a government-wide conspiracy can lose its luster after a hundred novels. Thriller fans depend on a degree of innovation, of hard-edged newness to maintain their increasingly demanding fix.
Chances are that parts of Gonzalo Lira’s Counterparts will please them.
Certainly, this novel starts out promisingly on realism and meanness, two other thriller staples. Our first protagonist, FBI agent Margaret Chisholm, is introduced with a crackerjack sequence in which she isn’t afraid to amputate a suspected terrorist in order to avert a disaster. Mean, smart, tough and unpredictable, she’s a type of protagonist we could enjoy. Our second hero is a charming, sophisticated intellectual named Nicholas Denton, who controls the CIA through his directorship of the records department. They’re brought together after a shadowy assassin destroys a convent of nuns, and soon have to cooperate in order to find the truth behind the assassination.
It sounds promising, and is in fact quite intriguing for a while. Lira’s antagonist -“Sepsis”- is an assassin who masters an astonishing variety of skills, and initially seems to be no match even for the united law-enforcement agencies of America. He mulls over concepts such as meta-killing (destruction without assassination), enjoys good books, speaks half a dozen languages and remorselessly kills after sex. Ooooh…
Furthermore, for a while everything seems to adhere fairly well to the real world, with an extra twist of enhanced originality. Denton’s take-over of the CIA is believable, as are the various descriptions of the inner working of federal agencies. Sepsis’ methods are intricately described, and even if the thought of Quebecker terrorists assassinating Canadian federalists is slightly amusing, everything seems to hang together quite nicely.
There are even a few exhilarating action scenes. While most thriller writers seem content with a clinical description of bullets, explosions and fatal trauma, Lira does an excellent job at representing action scenes on a purely visceral level. The demolition derby/fire-fight in Chapter 5, for instance, is one of the book’s highlights.
The problem is that Lira doesn’t do much with any of the tools at his disposition. As soon as the narrative moves to Italy, interest goes downhill. Meta-murder is scarcely brought up again. The motives behind his attacks seem increasingly dubious as more and more revelations are made. The novel even seems to turn in circle past the halfway point, as if certain revelations had been made too soon.
After that, the novel becomes more and more ludicrous, with extra layers of conspiracy, evil plans and secret identities that don’t make retroactive sense. Chisholm’s sexual preferences are gratuitously brought up. Denton’s lack of knowledge of the “true plan” is similarly unlikely. Sepsis’s origins are sort-of-explained, but it’s really hard to suspend our disbelief in this case. You may be excused a giggle or two during the last chapter.
Ultimately, the end result is a novel whose freshness wears off midway through, but a promising debut by a writer who can only improve with time. Hopefully, Lira’s next novels will build on his strengths while correcting his deficiencies. Certainly there’s enough raw potential in Counterparts for three other novels. Now let’s see if it’s a false promise.