When the villain in Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “The Adventure of the Dancing Men” demands to know how Sherlock Holmes could have broken his cipher, the great detective coolly replies, “What one man can invent another can discover.”
It’s a pithy line, and it unwittingly comments on the risk lurking behind all thrill-based writing: perishability. In a genre so fundamentally driven by plot twists, the danger is that once the reader knows those twists, the allure will disappear. It’s why so many thousands and thousands of thrillers and whodunits written in the past century have been read but never reread: Cleverness without craft tends to yield ephemera.
Nick Santora has written for television — “The Sopranos,” “Law & Order,” “Prison Break” — so he knows all about the dangers of ephemera. In his latest novel, “Fifteen Digits,” he seems to court it at every turn.
The plot centers on young Rich Mauro (standard Hollywood hero-issue: muscles, square jaw, blond hair), a construction worker from Queens whose parents died when he was a boy. As the novel opens, he’s living with his Uncle Jim and getting ready for his first day at the prestigious Manhattan law firm of Olmstead and Taft, where his lifelong benefactor, Max Seymour (a partner at the firm who has a tragic connection with Rich’s family), has secured him a job in the “Printers” — the firm’s basement office where hundreds of lawyers’ documents and briefs are photocopied, printed and bound for in-house use. Rich’s boss in the basement is a mentally disabled man named Eddie Pisorchek (a “thirty-five-year-old virgin who lived with his grandparents, collected anything having to do with Green Lantern, and who had the cognitive ability of an eleven-year-old”). Another co-worker has a rap sheet as thick as a phone book and “would have been a stereotype if he weren’t such a great guy.” Rich is warmly welcomed to the firm by Max, who is described as looking like “Jason Robards circa early 1980s.”
The newcomer hopes to become a lawyer and start earning the kind of money that will allow him to hang on to his wealthy girlfriend, Elyse Crane.
Enter Olmstead and Taft lawyer and lowlife Jason Spade, the spoiled son of a partner who dangles a plan to use the privileged information running through the Printers to make a fortune in illicit trading. The lure works. The others fancy easy money, and Rich, “a guy with no pedigree, no parents, and no prospects,” just wants to make enough so he doesn’t lose Elyse to the rich society types her parents prefer.
As the men — five in all — begin siphoning information, Santora expertly ratchets up the tension, using to maximum effect the kind of telegraphic foreshadowing he must have perfected in the TV business. “Fifteen Digits” is full of cliches and lazy writing — mentions of Fran Drescher or Pepsodent or Barry White (or the 198os Robards, for that matter) will have precious little meaning in 20 years — but the book is almost sinfully seductive.
Santora takes us far enough inside the separate worlds of our would-be profiteers that we can’t help but sympathize with them, even the devious and loathsome Spade. But the characters remain paper-thin, and the book’s central implausibility — that a high-profile law firm such as Olmstead and Taft would allow the Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight to work in the Printers in the first place — just doesn’t go away. We’re told that although he “was never the smartest guy in the room, Rich Mauro was far from the dumbest,” but it would take a stone-cold idiot to make the choices he makes time and again. He ignores his distrust of Spade, ignores the danger represented by the Harlem drug kingpin he meets through Spade, ignores the incredible risk of discovery inherent in sharing a secret with four people he barely knows, etc. Naturally, it all blows up in his face.
With a little more care, Santora could have made a first-rate thriller out of “Fifteen Digits.” (The title refers to the bank-access code where our band of amateur thieves stashes pilfered money.) Even as it is, readers will be mighty entertained — but may feel as if they’ve seen some of these dancing men before.
Donoghue is managing editor of the online magazine Open Letters Monthly.