It’s a fine spring morning, and I settle down with a new novel called “No Way Back,” by a writer unknown to me. It starts with a four-page prologue in which one man is torturing another. We don’t know who these men are or what information the torturer is after. But details do emerge.
The torturer is a professional; he knows his business. “Hopelessness was key,” he reflects. Having hacked off five of his victim’s fingers with a hunting knife, he reminds the poor fellow that more is at stake than just his one life. “Family, wife, friends. Their children. Do you understand?”
The victim understands. He’s a goner, but perhaps he can save others if he tells all. But his tormenter is skeptical. “Should I remove your eyes?” No, no, no, not necessary, the victim insists, but his abuser removes one anyway, and when the screams die down he proceeds with his questions.
By then, I’m almost as limp as the victim. My God, I’m thinking, what’s the audience for this book? Sadists?
But reviewers must be brave, so I push on. And soon, I’m glad I did because “No Way Back” proves to be beautifully plotted, fiendishly clever and one of the most impressive thrillers I’ve read in a long time. It somewhat recalls Dennis Lehane’s “Shutter Island” in the way it mingles mystery and madness.
To my surprise, once that horrific prologue is past, the story begins as comedy. We’re told that the author, Matthew Klein, “founded several technology companies in the Silicon Valley,” and that’s important because his story is set in that world, and he knows it well. At the outset, his quasi-hero, Jimmy Thane, arrives at a failing South Florida outfit called Tao Software, where he’s the new chief executive, there on a turnaround mission. He’s also semi-recovering from addictions to booze, meth, gambling and women. Those appetites wrecked his once-thriving career, and he’s here only because an old college pal, now a venture capitalist, is giving him one last chance.
Thane finds that Tao’s employees are mostly incompetent, self-serving and devious. Klein’s portraits of these losers is a riot. Thane gladly fires half of them, even as he searches for a way to peddle a much-heralded software product that doesn’t work. Other problems arise. The CEO before him vanished one day. Just vanished. Also missing: several million dollars. Oh, and Thane’s gorgeous but quite strange wife isn’t at all happy in South Florida.
Much of the fun of the book is trying to figure out what the hell is going on, although you won’t. Let’s just say that the story darkens rapidly as Thane realizes that he’s involved with serious criminals and that if he isn’t careful he’ll vanish like his predecessor. He hears whispers about the book’s villain. His name is said to be Ghol Gedrosian, and he recalls the super-criminal Keyser Soze in the movie “The Usual Suspects.” Gedrosian is nowhere and everywhere, and he’s all-powerful. His underlings are afraid to speak his name. He enforces discipline by threatening to kill, or killing, the children of those who resist him. It works.
Paranoia permeates the novel. Almost no one is who or what he or she appears to be. Deaths are frequent and gruesome; that opening torture scene was fair warning. As Thane struggles to survive, he seeks consolation in his old friends sex and drugs, not always successfully. In a bizarre scene with his troubled wife, it’s impossible to say whether she’s making love or making hate. Things improve during a meth-fueled romp with his mysterious young receptionist: “Tonight, in the candlelight, flushed from sex just finished, anticipating a rush about to begin, she is timeless, glowing, her face alive with anticipation, her body taut, thrumming like a bowstring.” Meth, he adds, provides “an orgasm that never stops.” The mingled pleasures and pitfalls of sex and drugs have rarely been more vividly presented.
Klein does many things well. He gleefully savages venture capitalists and turnaround wizards, he creates a villain who’s about as scary as villains get, and he displays a remarkable ability to hoodwink his readers. Nothing is sacred; evil runs rampant. Near the end, a bewildered Thane, tied to a chair, survives yet another burst of violence: “I look around the room. There are six dead bodies.” Then, slowly, the veils drop, and Klein leads us into the heart of his mystery. You may think his final revelations are brilliant, or you may think they’re totally over the top. Or both. If you’re like me, you’ll read the closing chapters again to make sure you understand what’s just happened. It’s all a bit astonishing.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.
NO WAY BACK
By Matthew Klein
392 pp. $25.95