Little Brown, 2002, 371 pages, C$36.95 hc, ISBN 0-316-15391-5
Well, they can’t all be perfect.
Followers of my “Michael Connelly Reading Project” (one book per month, every month, until we’re done) probably remember how I’ve been impressed by every Connelly novel so far: despite occasional dips in quality, every Connelly book is worth reading. Chasing the Dime is far from being a catastrophe, but it proves to be the most ordinary novel that Connelly has written to date.
It’s one of Connelly’s off-Bosch novels: After the drama of City of Bones, Bosch is off to a well-deserved break as Connelly plays around with a different protagonist. Not explicitly connected to the rest of the Connellyverse, Chasing the Dime features Henry Pierce, engineer and founder of a nanotechnology start-up. Pierce may be at the cusp of a business breakthrough as his company seeks investor money, but he has other personal issues to deal with: Freshly separated from his wife, Pierce moves into a new apartment as the novel begins. One of the things to do in the process is to get a new phone number, and that’s where the trouble starts: calls start coming in for a mysterious Lilly, who proves to be an escort.
Listless, perhaps even depressed (and, unfortunately, motivated by a secret from his past), Pierce decides to investigate the calls. If Lilly is gone, can he find her? As unfortunate hints accumulate, our charmingly inexperienced protagonist keeps digging. But he’s messing with dangerous people: Before long, shady characters are sending him threats… and then enforcers who see no problem in using some physical violence to send a clear message. Pierce isn’t about to stop, of course, but the deeper the digs, the worse it gets for him and his company.
As a premise for a thriller, it’s both conventional and promising. The idea of an ordinary man being stuck in underground machinations through happenstance is something that most readers will be able to appreciate. In this case, Pierce seems determined to solve Lily’s disappearance by boredom, curiosity and the need to escape from the pressure at his start-up. Alas, Connelly can’t resist the urge to do something else with the story, and that’s why Chasing the Dime is generally better during its first half than its second. It’s also why it makes more sense when its at its most chaotic.
Explaining this fully would take us into serious spoilers, so let me take refuge in generalities and structural meta-principles. Take the role of coincidences in plotting, for instance. The traditional view is that coincidences (or bad luck, or arbitrary author intervention) is perfectly acceptable as long as it throws the protagonist even deeper in trouble. It’s also generally more acceptable at first, when putting the pieces of the plot in place. After that, favourable coincidences are dramatically unsatisfying: They reveal too much of the author’s influence on the plot, they resolve situations for the protagonists and don’t allow the characters to work out their problems.
But it’s possible to take this anti-coincidence attitude a bit too far into conspiracy territory, where every single thing that happens can be tracked back to a mastermind manipulating his characters in a grandiose plot that leaves little to happenstance and decisions. Chasing the Dime arguably falls into that category: It turns out that the innocent man trying to get himself out of a bad situation isn’t so innocent, and he’s definitely being nudged deeper in trouble by people he knows.
It doesn’t help that the second half of Chasing the Dime becomes far more predictable: A lengthy exposition sequence about nanotechnology is clunky both for the pages of technical information dumped in the narrative, and for the way it sets up the scene for the book’s final confrontation. Savvier readers will wait out the last suspense sequence by wondering when the protagonist will use a piece of technology so lavishly described earlier.
Fortunately, Chasing the Dime escapes complete disappointment through Connelly’s usual strengths: His prose is as compulsively readable as ever, his characters are effectively sketched, his pacing is strong enough to pull readers in, and the wealth of procedural details is compelling at the notable exception of the info-dump mentioned above.
This doesn’t make Chasing the Dime a bad novel (goodness knows that most suspense writers can’t even write a novel of this calibre), but it certainly makes it one of Connelly’s least-impressive ones. He has led his fans to expect something better, so it can be a bit of a shock to realize that, yes, the man can be humanly fallible from time to time.