W. Somerset Maugham, that master of the backhanded compliment, famously quipped that nobody could write a bestseller by accident. The cliches? The hackneyed characters? The commonplace story? Sure, they might make us laugh, but the bestseller writer is in deadly earnest. “You cannot write anything that will convince,” Maugham said, “unless you are yourself convinced. The best seller sells because he writes with his heart’s blood.”
L.A.-based writer and TV producer Gregg Hurwitz has been courting such condescension his entire career, writing thrillers like “Trust No One” and “You’re Next” and penning the adventures of such comic book tough guys as Wolverine and the Punisher. He studied Shakespeare at Oxford, but so far he’s shown no inclination to leave the popular district of pulp fiction and move to the literary realm of “The Razor’s Edge.” And if his latest novel, a lightning-bolt thriller called “The Survivor,” is what he loves doing most, all the better for his readers.
The premise is so crushingly perfect that most Hollywood screenwriters would give a kidney to have dreamed it up. Thirty-six-year-old war veteran Nate Overbay, back home in L.A., estranged from his wife and teenage daughter, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and newly diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, decides to kill himself. He’s out on the ledge of the 11-story First Union Bank when he’s startled by gunfire and the splatter of blood on the inside of the bank’s nearby window. Balanced on the ledge, peeking inside, he sees a dead teller and a ski-masked crew of six gunmen breaking into the vault’s safe-deposit boxes and threatening the staff and customers. Suddenly, Nate’s attachment to life — to doing the right thing — returns in a rush. He steps through the open window, picks up a gun that one of the robbers had set down, and proceeds to kill five of the six gunmen. The sixth, before he escapes, utters the cryptic warning, “He will be greatly angered by you.”
Nate becomes an instant celebrity and is just as quickly kidnapped by thugs working for “he who will be greatly angered”: a hardened, pyschotic Ukrainian criminal named Pavlo, who’s prone to James Bond supervillain-style aphorisms such as, “There are those who are meat and those who are fed” and “The width of a cheetah’s canines match perfectly to vertebrae of its prey.” He gives Nate five days to complete the robbery he interrupted, or Pavlo’s men will kill his wife and daughter. The bad guy makes it clear there is no escape: “There is nowhere you and your family could have gone that my money would not reach.”
The plot unfolds with propulsive determination. Nate is reawakened not only to life, but to heroism. Things go from bad to worse, and for page after irresistible page, Hurwitz ramps up the tension, ending in a climax that’s not one bit less satisfying for being predictable. It’s so thrillingly cinematic that if Ryan Gosling hasn’t already been pitched the role of Nate, he should fire his agent.
In short, Maugham was right: There’s plenty of conviction in this slam-bang thriller, and its success is no accident.
Donoghue is managing editor of the online literary magazine Open Letters Monthly.