Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Methinks the Limey Doth Attempt Too Much

Robert Wilson, Capital Punishment

When beautiful, evasive Alyshia D’Cruz vanishes from a crowded Islington street, her Indian industrialist father hires Charles Boxer, London’s best kidnap consultant. But these kidnappers don’t demand ransom, or anything else. As Boxer and the D’Cruz family watch, they seemingly just torture Alyshia for fun. Boxer desperately calls in cards with the Met, MI5, and several crime syndicates, before they break a young woman’s already precarious sanity.

British novelist Robert Wilson’s eleventh novel attempts to kick-start a new series, and starts off quite well, with an edge of psychological horror based on casual sadism. But around the halfway mark, he veers hard left, dumping everything into the stew: the Pakistani ISI, London chavs with excessive self-regard, a Muslim versus Hindu turf war in Mumbai, heroin, class war, and the kitchen sink. A taut thriller metamorphoses into a chaotic Guy Ritchie knockoff.

Charles Boxer makes a good antihero. Raised by a seemingly bipolar single mum, he joined the Army young, where his misplaced aggression became an asset. Now he saves other people’s children, and apparently sidelines as a contract enforcer. But he hardly knows his own daughter, and catches himself repeating his father’s mistakes. He sees his own death spiral, but wonders if he has the strength to pull himself out in time.

But instead of entrusting Boxer with a single mystery, Wilson has Alyshia re-kidnapped, first by two layabout Eastenders who want to get rich quick, then by an ISI general whose zeal has morphed into megalomania. Police specialists, intelligence agents, the Mayor of London, and everyone but the Queen’s Horse Guards get involved in the investigation, which turns out to involve vengeance, electric cars, and dirty bombs.

This is all a shame, because for the first 200 pages, Wilson really had a winner. I wanted to know what dark secrets the kidnappers were trying to torture out of poor Alyshia, and what sordid past Frank D’Cruz wanted to conceal so badly that he would consider letting his daughter die. Wilson tossed us enough pieces that I wanted to assemble the whole jigsaw. I thought: this is really good. Everyone should read this taut, smart thriller.

Wilson admits that absent fathers are a recurrent theme in his writing. Charles Boxer’s father vanished when he was a kid, and now Charles is trying to avoid vanishing from his daughter’s life. But this theme has its obverse: Alyshia D’Cruz is fleeing her father, for reasons that Boxer teases out only with great difficulty. And Boxer’s daughter, Amy, won’t let her father get close after years of absence; she resents him so much, she’d rather punish herself than let him in.

These tensions drive much of the plot. How do you kidnap and adult who doesn’t want to be found? How do you psychologically punish somebody who seemingly has no conscience? As people do in extreme situations, these characters reveal their true colors, the inner identities they’ve tried to hide even from themselves. Not surprisingly, what they uncover often is not pretty. Heroes and villains trade places; people kill strangers to keep their families together.

Then Wilson turned on the cast of thousands, turning a cerebral drama into a London farce. Not that I mind London farce; Snatch is a classic film. But the change in tone is so jarring that this feels like two books, awkwardly stitched together, like reverse Siamese twins. Maybe that second book would have been good, too, if I’d just known it was coming. But when this novel should have opened into something profound, Wilson chose to kick readers in the teeth.

It feels as though Wilson doesn’t trust himself. He creates smart psychological tension, but seems afraid that, without a broad physical confrontation, readers won’t stick with him. So, just as we reach what looks like a turning point, where smothered secrets will finally see the light of day, he swerves, giving us a gun battle, followed by moments of low comedy. He has us sitting on the edge of our seats, and then he has us throwing our hands up, screaming “No he didn’t!”

This book has many admirable qualities, and I suspect a stern editor could have turned it into a smart nail-biter—or that and a sequel, each with their own strengths. I’m not sorry I read it, and I’m piqued to see more of Wilson’s books. But Wilson just tries to do too much, and as a result spreads his narrative thin. I like plenty about this book; I just don’t love it.

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