December 01, 2016

(+++) THE PLOTS THICKEN


Yael Azoulay #3: The Reykjavik Assignment. By Adam LeBor. Harper. $15.99.

Lock and Key #1: The Initiation. By Ridley Pearson. Harper. $17.99.

     The trilogy-plus centered on a United Nations covert negotiator (a strange concept) named Yael Azoulay comes to a conclusion in The Rejkjavik Assignment, which is better read after The Geneva Option and The Washington Stratagem than as a standalone (the “plus” part of the series, a short story called The Istanbul Exchange, is optional). The basic idea here is a typical one for sort-of-political sort-of-thrillers: the world is dirty and requires dirty dealings in the name of goodness, and someone has to put together deals that the rest of us would rather not know about, interacting with all sorts of unsavory characters while keeping his or her personal life compartmentalized, all for the betterment of humanity. It is a trifle na├»ve to see the United Nations as the fount of goodness, but even when settings are realistic – and Adam LeBor is good at making them believable – there has to be some sense of fantasyland to justify the inevitable derring-do in a sequence such as this. The U.N. is as good an imaginary landscape as any. The sequence’s conclusion brings much of Azoulay’s personal life and past into the foreground as she comes to New York City from Istanbul and has to deal with various shady dealings possibly perpetrated by Iranian agents, the bad-guys-du-jour. Among the disturbing events are shootings of top U.N. officials and the re-emergence of the usual sneaky-type operatives from the usual sneaky-type security firm, an outfit run by Clarence Clairborne, who gave Yael considerable trouble earlier in the series. In addition to her recent past coming back to haunt her, or at least track her, the thirtysomething Yael is encountering trouble from her more-distant past in the form of rumors about the death of her brother in Rwanda many years earlier. Between the family-connection concerns and her own worries about her unsatisfactory love life, Yael has a lot to juggle in The Reykjavik Assignment. That would be all right, but the problem here is that the reader has to do the juggling, too, and there are so many plot threads that it can be hard to know what to follow at what time – the sense of major elements vs. minor ones is not always clear. Furthermore, LeBor creates a kind of perils-of-Pauline style here, to a greater extent than in the previous novels: there are so many cliffhangers that readers will start to expect them, which is scarcely the point of setting them up. The strengths of LeBor’s writing remain evident here, notably in the verisimilitude he creates by tying his fictional protagonist to real-world events: “If she really was a prisoner, eventually they would have to get her out of the building and into a vehicle. It was just a question of waiting. Entering and exiting buildings and vehicles always made for the most vulnerable moments. Former Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic had one of the heaviest security details in the world, but it had not prevented a sniper from killing him as he stepped out of his car one afternoon in Belgrade.” Readers who want a fictional sense of going behind real-world headlines, and who believe in the U.N. as essentially a force for good – and an adept one at fielding agents as competent as Yael – will enjoy this novel and find it a more-than-satisfactory series conclusion. Its formulaic elements, though, are ever-present, and those not enamored of LeBor’s writing will find the book alternately thin and overdone.

     Aimed at younger readers but packed with the kinds of ins and outs to be expected from an experienced writer of crime novels for adults, Ridley Pearson’s Lock and Key series sets itself a highly ambitious goal: nothing less than the reimagining of the Sherlock Holmes canon from the point of view of Holmes’ greatest antagonist, James Moriarty. The notion of having the “bad guy” become central to a rethinking of a well-known plot is nothing new – think of Wicked, for instance – but doing so in the Holmes context is a rather bold move. It is also something of a stretch. To make it work, Pearson invents a younger sister for Moriarty, giving her the unlikely name of Moria (yes, “Moria Moriarty,” and perhaps the echo of Tolkien’s Moria is intentional). Pearson then moves the Holmes story to modern times and to the United States, although Holmes remains British and the location where the action occurs – a boarding school called Baskerville (what else?) Academy – has been brought brick by brick across the pond to the U.S. The awkward namings and relocation will not matter to readers encountering Holmes and Moriarty for the first time, and are presumably designed to make the story more appealing to 21st-century Americans. The Initiation is an “origin” story, designed to probe and explain the enmity between Holmes and Moriarty that eventually ended both their lives, or at least seemed to, at the Reichenbach Falls. Holmes and Moriarty are roommates at school, and both are forceful and stubborn – apparently those characteristics are intended as stand-ins for the “genius” label, since the two are supposed to evolve into polar opposites of equal intelligence and cunning. Pearson is inclined to tell people how smart the two are instead of actually showing them doing smart things; this is especially the case for Moriarty, who comes across as a whiner. Holmes, for his part, keeps trying to be friendly to Moriarty, for no apparent reason. Moria makes a good enough narrator, her own cleverness more evident than that of her older brother, her sneakiness about on par with his but her moral compass more acceptable. The book’s plot is almost incidental to the layout (it is not quite “development”) of the characters. The story revolves around a red envelope with a clue that is left for Moriarty; he intends to pursue matters on his own, but Holmes and Moria are determined to help, whether he wants them to or not. There are other clues as well, and of course a secret society, and the notion is that Holmes and Moriarty have to work together to assemble all the bits and pieces and solve the mystery. But plotting is actually not the book’s strong point: Pearson throws in so many details and such long explanations of event that matters sometimes become difficult to follow and, worse, tedious. The early part of the book is stronger than its second half, and perhaps readers pulled into the novel will stay with it through the rather rougher, highly explanatory time in its later pages. Those who already know Holmes will find little intriguing in this reimagining, but those encountering him for the first time may welcome this entry into a New World version of the Holmes-Moriarty conflict.

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