The Monkey travels to the depraved depths of modern London.
Which is pretty damned depraved, as it turns out.
by William Boyd (2009)
Filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock coined the now-famous term ‘MacGuffin,’ referring to that event that triggers a plot to propel itself forward. For Hitchcock, it was not important whether the audience believed in the MacGuffin or not, what mattered was that the characters believed it.
In Ordinary Thunderstorms, British writer William Boyd takes that concept to heart. The Costa Award-winning author (for his 2006 novel Restless) has created a story apparently revolving around mysterious documents, but they function only as Boyd’s MacGuffin, as his true ambition lies in an incisive exploration into character.
Taking another Hitchcockian cue, Ordinary Thunderstorms begins with a classic narrative set-up, an innocent man on the run. In this instance, Adam Kindred, in London for a job interview, who within the first twenty pages finds himself inadvertently accused of the murder of a drug company scientist.
In his hand as he runs is a paper from the dead man’s files, “a simple list of names and ages…and beside each name…was some form or shorthand that looked like the record of some kind of dose.” What the list represents is unknown and is almost beside the point, as Boyd merely employs the trappings of a thriller to better follow the ensuing lives of several characters while presenting a dissection of the diverse veins of London life.
Boyd is skilled enough to craft characters and scenarios that grab the reader, but the story he wants to tell is oftentimes an ill fit with the structure of a suspense novel. Ordinary Thunderstorms is marketed as a straight-ahead mystery-thriller, but Boyd’s plot, while atmospheric and sometimes engrossing, is too leisurely paced to maintain any narrative thrust.
As a cat-and-mouse chase it lacks a sense of true urgency, and as an exploration into the evils of corporations, it falls far short of the penetrating insight of John le Carre’s The Constant Gardener. But Boyd is far more interested in people than plot, and what his tale lacks in tension it makes up for with insight into personalities.
For Boyd, people are only as powerful as someone else allows them to be. Jonjo Case, a mercenary who lets Adam slip through his fingers, is eager to right himself in the eyes of his mysterious superiors. Ingram Fryzer, president of the drug company Calenture-Deutz, wields enormous authority yet cannot control the machinations of a silent partner who is rushing an asthma medication to market.
Ironically, the person with the most power is Adam, surprisingly resourceful, forced to begin again by going underground in a city reputed to shelter over 600 missing persons a week. “Only London was big and heartless enough to contain these lost multitudes, the vanished population of the United Kingdom – only London could swallow them up without a qualm, without demur.”
There is a decent thriller in Ordinary Thunderstorms, but those looking for a breakneck murder mystery should seek simpler climes. Boyd may appear distracted by the tenets of the genre, resulting in sub-plots left dangling, but the end result, far from ordinary, is intriguing and often startling in its subtlety.
Originally published (expurgated version) in the Winnipeg Free Press, February 13, 2010.