On a flight to Paris, travel writer Will Rhodes’s plane nearly plummets. After it stabilizes, Will downs some sleeping pills with a whiskey. The brush with death sparks a revelation: “He should be happy, but he’s not.” He’s made “the relentless pursuit of happiness his career.” But the reality says otherwise. Will’s marriage and finances are faltering. And by the way, the affair he had while on assignment in Argentina was caught on tape.
Also, the woman he slept with says she’s a CIA agent. She makes an offer he can’t refuse: “ ‘You’ll become an asset of the CIA, Will Rhodes. Or we’ll ruin your life.’ ”
So Will becomes a spy. For a New York magazine writer, this is an adjustment, to put it mildly. Things get even more complicated when he realizes that his clandestine work involves more than ferrying information: He might have to kill — or be killed. Now Will wants out. Trying to break free, though, puts him in peril. Too many people know Will is a man who knows too much.
Chris Pavone’s “The Travelers” is a Hitchcockian thriller that recalls “Notorious” (spying for the government; explosive marital secrets) and “North by Northwest” (man on the run). The book is filled with characters clutching passports (fake and genuine) as they messenger envelopes stamped “confidential,” upload and download secret files, haunt hidden rooms, and, literally, hang from cliffs — all the while sprinting from New York to Paris to Buenos Aires and, ultimately, to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in Iceland.
After the success of his two thrillers, “The Expats” and “The Accident,” Pavone works here in an expansive mode. He brings on a full slate of characters, sharply etching their dress, their moves, their motives, all the while evoking the world they occupy. The book has, not surprisingly, been optioned for film.
At the magazine, there is editor Malcolm Somers, whose furtive activities include something shady with Will’s wife. There’s a former editor who disappeared, who may have been a victim of suicide or murder. There’s a man hiding out in Stockholm. There’s a shady group in Falls Church, Va., monitoring the moves of “a strange combination of people,” including some of the staff at Travelers.
All of them inhabit what Pavone effectively renders as a murky, Kafkaesque world. Manhattan’s Avenue of the Americas becomes “a performance-art exhibit of lonely late-night labor, aproned cleaning ladies pushing vacuum cleaners, and jumpsuited maintenance men on ladders, and bankers at desks with sentient-looking Equipoise lamps, takeout containers and partially crumpled cans of Diet Coke that didn’t quite make it to the trash bin, all of it a silent pantomime of isolation and alienation.”
Such ruminations add breadth and depth to “The Travelers” but also slow its pace. By midpoint, the reader may want to get on with the chase. In the book’s final third, Pavone does just that, deftly pulling together the plot’s many threads, connecting characters that seemed unrelated to the plot and stepping up the tempo. An action scene in Iceland caps “The Travelers” with a breakneck finish.
Exhausted by dizzying reversals and athletic pursuits that would tax a triathlete, Will wonders at the end whether he ever really knew his friends, co-workers and partners — “all of us travelers,” he observes, “all on our way to someplace else.” There are hints he’ll return in future installments to find out. Let’s hope so.
Gerald Bartell is an arts writer based in Manhattan.
By Chris Pavone
Crown. 448 pp. $26