By Ron Charles
Wednesday, February 17, 2010; C04
By William Boyd
Harper. 403 pp. $26.99
The most astonishing thing about William Boyd's fine new novel is how hackneyed its opening chapter is. It reads so much like a parody of thriller conventions that you expect Alfred Hitchcock to waddle out and drawl, "Good eve-en-ning."
On the first page, we learn that a young climatologist named Adam Kindred has "no idea how his life is about to change in the next few hours -- massively, irrevocably -- no idea at all." Okay, then, we're ready for excitement -- massively, irrevocably ready: Noticing that a man at a nearby table has left behind some scientific papers at a restaurant where he's eating, Adam calls the man and offers to take the papers to his apartment. But when Adam arrives a few minutes later, he discovers that the man has just been stabbed. "The file," the dying man whispers. "Whatever you do, don't -- ."
And then -- damn the luck! -- he dies right before he can tell Adam what to do with the file. Should he call an ambulance? The police? "NO! NO! RUN!" he thinks, realizing this will "probably be one of the most important decisions of his life." And if you doubt that assessment, it's repeated 10 lines later: "So he made his decision, one of the most important decisions in his life."
As a reader, this is the kind of opening that makes me think, "NO! NO! RUN!" But Boyd is the author of a dozen respected novels, shortlisted for the Booker, winner of the Whitbread and the Somerset Maugham and the Costa Novel of the Year. Surely, you keep hoping, his first thriller will get better than this.
And it does.
Once Boyd lays out that thread-worn crisis, in fact, the rest of his novel quickly grows rich and engaging. He creates the wide spectrum of London -- from its lawless slums to its posh boardrooms -- with arresting cinematic detail. And the many characters who populate these pages, from drug-dealing prostitutes to drug-making chief executives, are surprising and sympathetic.
But what really interests Boyd in "Ordinary Thunderstorms" -- and what will make you self-conscious about every step you take -- is the way a single, random event can spark a storm of complex reactions. By kindly offering to return that folder of lost papers, Adam finds himself swept up in a deadly plot to silence a rogue medical researcher who was about to blow the whistle on a faulty new asthma drug. The police assume he stabbed the doctor, while the murderer is determined to rub out an inconvenient witness. In a moment of panic, Adam abandons his life and disappears onto the streets of London, sleeping by the side of a highway, begging for coins and snacking on pigeon.
For a pampered academic, it's like falling into some ghastly negative image of London. Previously invisible people become Adam's friends and colleagues: addicts and runaways, illegal immigrants and religious fanatics, the kind of nameless people who are pulled dead from the Thames.
This is a novel about the frailty of identity, the anonymity of modern city life, the frightening and thrilling possibilities of personal reinvention. Boyd gives a harrowing sense of how close and yet how distant the nether life of a large city is, accessible to anyone willing or forced to step outside the web of modern technology: "No cheques, no bills, no references, no mobile phone calls -- only payphones -- no credit cards, only cash -- nothing. That's how you disappear in the twenty-first century -- you just refuse to take part in it. You live like a medieval peasant: you scrounge, you steal, you sleep under hedges."
What follows is the story of a hunted man, the chapters propelled along thrillingly at just the right moments by sudden reversals, revelations and reprisals. Penniless and hunted, Adam has few resources to mount a criminal inquiry or pursue a pharmaceutical scandal, but he toughens up quickly on the streets and manages an ingenious investigation to clear his name. Nevertheless, through it all, he's madly pursued by a retired British soldier-turned-hit-man who honed his grisly techniques in Afghanistan. I'm still trying to blot out of my mind what he does to a captured man's hands. . . .
The novel's most impressive quality is the way Boyd rotates through a large group of characters, allowing us to experience this crisis from a variety of perspectives -- each slanted and usually wildly mistaken. Adam, his determined assassin, a tenacious young policewoman and the wealthy president of a pharmaceutical company are all racing to understand what's happening to them. Boyd reminds us that we're pattern-hungry creatures, deeply biased toward the belief that events are connected, that motives underlie actions. But sometimes the only connection is the one we imagine. And kill for.
Admittedly, the evils of big pharma felt like a fresher theme a decade ago, when John le Carré wrote "The Constant Gardener," but Boyd provides a slick primer on the way new drugs are marketed -- from helpful public service announcements to anodyne branding commercials, all designed to bully government regulators, stoke public demand and maximize profits. Chemicals and genes aren't the only thing being manipulated here.
"Ordinary Thunderstorms" never sounds too polemical, though, because at the center of this Death Star of corporate malignancy, Boyd places one of his most complex and humane characters: Ingram Fryzer, president of Calenture-Deutz Pharmaceutical. He's a corporate tycoon, a man of impeccable taste and extraordinary power, but ultimately he has no more control over his life than poor Adam. Once this storm of fraud and conspiracy gets roaring, nobody can manage it.
Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.