Scarecrow, Matthew Reilly

<em class="BookTitle">Scarecrow</em>, Matthew Reilly

St. Martin’s, 2003 (2005 reprint), 464 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-93766-0

Let me tell you why I love reading Matthew Reilly’s novels.

Since an image is worth a thousand words, picture this: Ottawa in mid-February. A meter of snow everywhere, ice on the ground, snowflakes in the air, fierce wind whipping the countryside. Then focus on an infrequent bus, stained with salt, windows fogged with its passengers’ exhalations, plowing through the storm thanks to an aggravated driver whose schedule has already been smashed by the weather, out-of-synch traffic lights, bad pavement and passengers who don’t know how to behave. Now enter the bus and try to find a place in the middle of a crowded space, alongside surly teenagers, glum federal public servants, depressed shift workers and overburdened students. The noise is a monotonous mixture of wind, pavement cracks, coughs, sniffles and regular stop calls. One person, squeezed in-between two grossly overweight passengers, is smiling. Of course, he’s reading a Matthew Reilly thriller.

What you’re not seeing is that at that point in the novel, barely fifty pages in, top operative Shane “Scarecrow” Schofield has just escaped a crumbling high-rise by grappling onto a Harrier-like jet. The building hides a top-secret Soviet ICBM launch complex, Schofield has a $18.2 million dollar bounty on his preferably-severed head, bounty hunters have decimated the rest of his Marines and there’s a Typhoon-class nuclear submarine hidden nearby.

This, my friends, is high-class escapism.

Some commuters read romance, some read fantasy, some read science-fiction, some read murder mysteries —and some read them all. But give me a slick over-the-top technothriller, and I won’t even care if it takes twice as long to go to work or get back home: As long as I’m reading, I will barely be on the bus.

This being Reilly’s fifth novel, it’s got a track record to follow. Fortunately, Reilly amps up the action to ever more frenetic levels, not forgetting to throw in a few spectacular scenes (such as an aircraft carrier blowing up), fast cars, high-tech weapons (such as Metalstorm rifles), fake deaths and nick-of-time escapes. Not to mention a bare-knuckles fist-fight between two series regulars. By this time in his series, he can count of his reader’s familiarity with his tricks to build punchlines or gut-punch readers who expect something else. A recurring character dies here, but on the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s a really funny moment during which a character tries to emulate Schofield’s recurring mag-hook trick, only to find out that it doesn’t work… and then scream that this sort of thing never happens to the Scarecrow.

But one thing’s new this time around, and it’s thematic framework that underlies the action. While Reilly gets a lot of juice from his bounty-hunting antagonists (one of which is certain to make a return appearance in upcoming novels), he ends up providing his novel with an apocalyptic “third world against first world” justification that hints at greater degrees of political sophistication. But don’t make too much of it in Scarecrow, though, because most of it is jettisoned as soon as the last act rolls in.

But once the smoke has cleared, it all adds up to an unusually satisfying thriller experience. Reilly has mastered thriller writing not only in delivering the good to his readership, but doing in a way that practically absolves him of any criticism: Of course, his premises, means, justifications, characters, and plotting don’t sustain comparison with the real world; what’s your point? The real thrill here is in seeing a skilled craftsman plays magnificently with the tools of his trade. It’s beautiful, impressive, and completely absorbing. If ever you see me reading a Matthew Reilly novel on the bus, please don’t disturb.

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