Friday March 22, 2013
The Expats is everyone’s idea of a breathless page-turner
Review by MARTIN SPICE
This is a book that is very well written, has convincing characters, an intriguing plot and a surprise a minute.
Author: Chris Pavone
Publisher: Faber & Faber, 485 pages
FROM time to time, one comes across a first novel that is almost indecently accomplished. I suppose the fact that The Expats is published by Faber & Faber should have been warning enough that this was a book likely to exceed expectations.
As one of the world’s most venerable independent publishing houses (their list includes five Booker Prize winners and 12 Nobel laureates!), they have a reputation to maintain.
At first glance, a thriller set in Luxembourg is some way adrift of the fairly erudite titles on which Faber has built its reputation. For The Expats is an out-and-out thriller, a tale of deception and double-crossing, of deviousness, subterfuge and greed.
In short, The Expats is everyone’s idea of a breathless page-turner – and a very good one at that. Good enough, in fact, for Chris Pavone to have attracted the attention of one of the world’s great publishing houses.
Kate Moore is a working mother with a deep dark secret. Now desk bound, she has in her recent past been a full-blown CIA operative whose fieldwork operations have included assassination. She is a highly-skilled agent who is clearly exhilarated by the thrill of dangerous undercover work.
How, then, will she adapt to expat life in Luxembourg where her computer nerd of a husband, Dexter, has just been offered a very lucrative job?
Predictably, the answer is “not very well”. Kate will get bored with the rounds of school playground gossip, drinks parties, barbeques, and tennis.
And so, when another American couple, Julia and Bill, take an unusual interest in her and Dexter’s life, Kate’s investigative instincts are aroused.
It takes one to know one, they say, and so it proves for Kate. The more contact she has with Julia and Bill, the more convinced she becomes that they are not the normal expats they at first appear to be. Worse, she fears that they may be investigating her for events connected to her previous CIA role.
The twists in the plot start early. Kate has never told Dexter of her past and she is reluctant to open up now. So, whatever suspicions she has about Bill and Julia have either to be kept secret or parcelled up and presented to Dexter in “innocent” terms.
But then, Dexter is also behaving a little oddly. He is abnormally vague about what exactly he does for a living (“computer security systems”), unwilling to tell her who actually employs him (“the client”), and guarded about the purpose of his steadily expanding travel itineraries.
When Kate breaks into his office and discovers a set-up somewhat at odds with Dexter’s description of his job, Kate knows that something odd is happening. And so it proves.
So far, we have an expat mother with a CIA past, a computer nerd of a husband who is clearly not doing what he says he is, and two friends who bear an uncanny resemblance to agents. This, you might think, is complexity enough to be going on with. Not so. As in all the best thrillers, the plot thickens, the deceptions grow, and absolutely nothing is as it seems.
Pavone prefaces The Expats with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Truth is beautiful, without doubt; but so are lies.” So, be warned: you can take nothing here at face value.
Pavone is an ex-book editor who spent a year and a half in Luxembourg when his wife got a job there. He started to write The Expats in its “cobblestoned street cafes” so it is not surprising that his version of expat life rings true.
And he must have had enormous fun creating what is one of the most complex plots I have come across in a long time. It is something of a cliché to claim that the plotting of a thriller is intricate because that is what, in essence, thrillers are: complex situations which someone has to pick their way through, working from the few clues they are given.
That said, even by thriller standards, The Expats demands pretty close attention as twist follows twist until at the end, most readers will be scrambling backwards to tie up all the loose connections. Is it satisfying? Eminently so.
A feature of the book some readers may find irritating or confusing is the time scheme. This is particularly true at the beginning when Kate flits between the present and the past.
All I can advise is to keep going: things sort themselves out. That apart, I can only warmly recommend The Expats as a crackingly good read. It is very well written, has convincing characters, an intriguing plot and a surprise a minute. This is a very accomplished book from an author I am sure we are going to hear much more from – hopefully involving the very beguiling Kate Moore.