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A roundup of thrillers by DeMille, Tobey, Koryta and Deaver

By Dennis Drabelle
Sunday, June 20, 2010; BW12

SO COLD THE RIVER

By Michael Koryta

Little, Brown. 508 pp. $24.99

THE BURNING WIRE

By Jeffery Deaver

Simon & Schuster. 414 pp. $26.99

If there were a prize for the novel best suited for summer reading, my 2010 nominee would be Jeffery Deaver's "The Burning Wire." It's a big, flashy stretch limo of a thriller that brings back Lincoln Rhyme and his assistant, Amelia Sachs, to stop a killer whose weapon of choice is electricity.

The action starts when a bus stops in Manhattan and an electrical booby trap designed to melt the whole vehicle ends up taking out just one victim, who meets a grisly fate indeed. This, however, is only a warm-up for mayhem to come: The chief suspect works for Algonquin Consolidated Power and thus knows the ins and outs of volts, amperes, currents, circuit breakers and all the other concepts and gizmos that keep our lights burning, our appliances humming and our traffic moving. Rhyme, a forensic consultant to the NYPD and a quadriplegic who relies on Sachs to be his feet and eyes in the field, knows next to nothing about "juice" -- which is convenient because we readers can learn about it by looking over his shoulder.

Among the book's many strengths is giving a sense of what it's like to be paralyzed (except for some finger movement) from the neck down. Before it's all over, Rhyme weighs the possibility of improving his condition via surgery against the chance that he might not be the same crime-fighter afterward. "My power comes from my disability," he reflects -- a strange but plausible assessment from a pro who is all business, no self-pity and a pleasure to watch.

* * *

SO COLD THE RIVER

By Michael Koryta

Little, Brown. 508 pp. $24.99

It's in the water: Pluto Water, a gift from Mother Nature that bubbles out of the ground in rural Indiana. Back in the 19th century, its bottlers passed the stuff off as a panacea -- "When nature won't, Pluto will" -- and made lots of money on it, but nobody pays much attention to it today.

Except, that is, for Eric Shaw, the filmmaker-protagonist of Michael Koryta's engaging supernatural thriller "So Cold the River." Eric has gone to Indiana to document the life of a superannuated billionaire with Plutonic connections -- it's a humble gig but actually a step up for Eric, who has been reduced to videotaping weddings for a living after flubbing an attempt to become a Hollywood director. He realizes something is amiss after being given a bottle of vintage Pluto: It's ice-cold to the touch even when not refrigerated, and when Eric takes a sip, he is rewarded -- if that's the right word -- with troubling visions from the region's past.

"So Cold the River" takes a while to build up momentum, but the material is so fresh and the characters so appealing that my interest never flagged. After reading it, I'm sticking to good old D.C. tap water.

* * *

THE FACULTY CLUB

By Danny Tobey

Atria. 307 pp. $25

"The Faculty Club" centers on V and D, a secret society operating in the bowels of an unnamed law school that sounds very much like Yale, from which the author graduated. It's not enough for Jeremy Davis, a young man from the sticks of Texas, to have gained admission to a top-flight program. He also wants to be one of only three first-year students tapped for the prestigious V and D, and he neglects his studies in an all-out effort to make himself clubbable. Needless to say (cue the brooding sound track), V and D is not what it seems.

Danny Tobey excels at working hypothetical situations, moral dilemmas and puzzles into his plot. He also borrows to good effect from Poe's story "The Pit and the Pendulum," retooling its murderous contraption for the high-tech world of today.

But Tobey stumbles in narrating the moot-court trial that Jeremy hopes to use as a springboard into the club. It so happens that Sarah Casey, a medical student who takes the stand as an expert witness, is not only an acquaintance of Jeremy's but also someone about whom he has learned a damning secret. To illustrate the amoral lengths to which Jeremy will go to make it into V and D, Tobey has him force Sarah to divulge that humiliating secret in court. But since she is there playing a role, it's hard to see how this could happen. Whenever Jeremy asks a question about real-life Sarah, all role-playing Sarah has to do is stonewall because the truth has nothing to do with her "character." In a novel so steeped in conundrums imported from law and philosophy, this is a surprising and distracting lapse.

* * *

THE LION

By Nelson DeMille

Grand Central. 437 pp. $27.99

Subconsciously, I may have lumped Nelson DeMille with Cecil B. DeMille, most of whose movies do nothing for me. After catching up with DeMille's latest novel, "The Lion," I see the error of my ways. DeMille is a brisk storyteller whose hero, retired but hardly inactive federal anti-terrorist agent John Corey, is a talented wisecracker. I especially liked his characterization of the junk food he grabs and eats on the run: "cheese maggots."

The eponymous lion is Asad Khalil, a Libyan jihadist who has sneaked into the States to wreak vengeance on multiple enemies, including Corey, who once almost nabbed him. In a bravura early scene, Khalil infiltrates a planeload of skydivers that includes Corey and his wife. Corey is in free fall when he looks up and sees that his wife, also in midair, has company: Khalil, who has grappled on to her with malice aforethought. I hadn't thought it was possible to outdo the crop-dusting sequence from Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" for aerodynamic thrills, but with this scene DeMille may have succeeded.

"The Lion" raises a question, however: Can the narrator of a thriller be too droll? About two-thirds of the way through, I was ready for Corey to stop with the one-liners and for his creator to do what DeMille the director would have done: cut to the chase. In his own good time, of course, DeMille the thriller-writer does exactly that.

Dennis Drabelle is mysteries editor of Book World.

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