The Cobweb, Stephen Bury

Bantam, 1997, 384 pages, C$17.95 tpb, ISBN 0-553-37828-7

The first thing you won’t notice anywhere on the paperback cover of Stephen Bury’s The Cobweb is any association of Bury with young SF superstar Neal Stephenson. (It is well known that Stephen Bury is the pseudonym that Stephenson uses when collaborating with his uncle.) Unlike Bury’s first novel, Interface, which loudly advertised “co-written by NEAL STEPHENSON”, The Cobweb is promoted as being “A frightening and savagely witty new thriller from the author of Interface

Whatever Bantam’s intentions were, it is clear that The Cobweb is not Interface and at the same time a novel very much in the style of the previous novel. In short, this isn’t Stephenson: this is Bury.

The Cobweb is a thriller mostly taking place in the last few months of 1990 in a small town somewhere in Iowa. Deputy sheriff Clyde Banks has a few problems: He’s trying to be elected sheriff, his wife is gone to war in the Gulf and mysterious crimes are happening in his town, with prime suspects being foreign students studying at the local university…

It’s always a risk to write a near-past thriller. Events have to be restrained, characters can’t do things that would clash with our perception of history. In other words, we already know how the story will end, at least in broad and general terms. Despite this, an impressive amount of very good novels (notably Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal and The Fist of God) have successfully bridged this difficulty. The Cobweb joins their ranks.

Most of the novel is centered either on Clyde Banks, or on a humble Washington CIA analyst named Betty Vandeventer. Their personal struggles become more fascinating than the bigger events surrounding them. The novel is a page-turner, and Bury’s gift for characterization is evident.

The prose is also delicious, a mix of good storytelling with a wealth of details. We come out of the novel feeling as if we know more about the world that we did before. Bury’s take on the development of the Gulf War is especially interesting, exposing plausible links and consequences that explain a lot. The co-authors have a firm grasp on political, economic and scientific concepts, and this knowledge goes a long way in assuring the aura of believability essential for any thriller. They manage to make bureaucratic infighting exciting, which is an achievement in itself.

Bury’s fascination for details, already visible in Interface, makes The Cobweb worth its price in paperback: This is a curiously satisfying thriller, unlike other books in the genre which can be read in a flash and feel as insubstantial as hot air.

This isn’t Interface, but it’s as good. Whatever Bury wishes to write next, his readers are assured of a very good read.

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