Ballantine, 1999, 466 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-43478-1
By now, the beginning of the 21st century, the formula of the typical thriller is well-known and highly unlikely to change: One lone man gradually discovers a terrible secret for which unknown forces are prepared to kill. The hero is cut off from his usual sources of support, often framed for crimes he didn’t commit, sent in hiding where he will discover unlikely allies and eventually manages to blow open the lid of a grandiose conspiracy. It’s a formula that has been proved over and oven again. When it’s well-done, it can hold the attention of even the most jaded writers.
Such is the case with Gideon, a standard thriller that succeeds on the strength of a pair of sympathetic characters, some unexpected twists, a semi-realistic conclusion and solid writing.
The narrative begins with pure wish-fulfillment for many struggling authors: Protagonist Carl Granville, a novice novelist, is secretively commissioned by a high-powered editor to write a romanced political biography. What he finds is shocking, a tale of infanticide that seems to implicate a high-ranking member of the American government. For Carl, it’s a good job. But it soon turns ugly as his editor and his girlfriend are both killed. His attempts to track down the publisher of his phantom book are unsuccessful. Pretty soon, he’s framed for both murders and sent on the run in an effort to find out the truth.
There isn’t much there that’ new or innovative, but the devil is in the details, and most of Gideon’s appeal rests on the actual nuts-and-bolts of the novel. Carl is fully realized as a completely sympathetic character. Unlike so many thriller heroes who “just happen” to have SEAL training, Carl has believable strength and endearing weaknesses. He doesn’t act too much like an idiot (a typical flaw in thriller protagonists) and is adequately bewildered whenever strange things happen to him. In short, he’s a perfect stand-in for most readers.
There are a few interesting twists, of course, such as the early death of a few supporting characters we might have expected to stick around longer. For some reason, the authors manage to inject some energy in well-known stock situations. The protagonist’s quest for truth often looks like a series of audacious long-shots, but he manages to overcome all obstacles with cleverness and luck. One particularly tense scene in a Mississippi-area forest had me wondering “How is he ever going to get out of that one?”
Alas, the villains aren’t nearly as good: Oh, they’re menacing all right—they kill with relish and expertise. But in the end, they’re just the usual evil rich businessmen, sadistic henchmen and power-hungry politicians. In fact, the most memorable thing about any of the villains is the ridiculously contrived identity of one of them, the type of thing that makes one sigh in exasperation at the unnecessary twist.
One thing that “Andrews” does manage to handle quite well is the resolution of the intrigue. Most conspiracy thrillers would like you believe that going to the media with irrefutable proof, killing the leader or exacting a taped confession would stop everything right then and there. Gideon is a bit more realistic, with a carefully orchestrated campaign to stop everything, counter-offers and stoic villains. That part of the book rang truer than most thrillers.
In the end, Gideon doesn’t aspire at being much more than good beach reading but it does so with an impressive mastery of stock elements. Aspiring readers should take note of how careful execution and a sympathetic protagonist can satisfy despite a conventional dramatic arc. As for the rest of us readers, well, there are tons of worse books out there… standard thriller formula or not.