"Panic," Jeff Abbott

Pros: Engaging storyline; complex plot; detailed characters
Cons: Characters held at arms’ length; hard to believe some of these folks are as competent as we’re told they are
Rating: 3 out of 5

I truly enjoy a good page-turning, heart-in-your-mouth thriller, but I so rarely read them. It’s just that it can be tough to pick out the good ones on the bookstore shelves, and I hate being disappointed–a thriller that doesn’t thrill doesn’t really seem worth the time.

Evan Casher is a documentary maker of some minor note, a young man on the road to success. His parents love him; he has an incredible new girlfriend; everything’s going swimmingly. Until, that is, he finds his mother horrifically murdered and nearly gets killed himself. Then he discovers that everything he knew–everything he thought he knew–about his life is a lie. His parents never were the people he believed them to be, and now he’s in danger–from his mother’s killers, from the CIA, the FBI, and maybe, just maybe, his own friends and family. He’s going to have to toss aside the sheltered life he’s lived and learn to play hardball if he wants to survive.

In many ways this is a very well-constructed book. The characters come alive with detail. The plot twists and turns unexpectedly, threading its way through layer upon layer of deceit. Plenty of action kicks up the pages. So why couldn’t I get into “Panic” the way I could Mount Dragon?

I think there are two answers to that.

First, the characters felt as though the author constantly held them at arms’ length. They were very well-detailed to be sure, but I didn’t feel close to them. I never really cared for them. Characters–and how much you identify with them–make or break a book, and they’re part of what broke this book for me. Even when the book gets into Evan’s head it feels like it maintains a restrained distance, somehow. (And if I could figure out exactly what aspect of technique caused that discrepancy, I’d be a much better writer than I am.)

Second, many of the characters in this book are supposed to be worldly, experienced, intelligent, highly-competent spies and assassins. Yet they don’t come across that way. Sure, it’s good to show that spies and assassins aren’t supermen and superwomen, that they’re human and have flaws too, but these folk come across as fatally foolish and clumsy in places. I honestly couldn’t believe that they’d been in business as long as they had. In particular, Evan seemed entirely too much the emergent prodigy as he battled the overwhelming forces arrayed against him–or maybe it’s just that he seemed that way compared to their unprofessional antics.

There’s so much evident skill here in the precise, complex detailing of characters and plot. I just wish I’d found it easier to care about the characters and believe in their competence–it might have made this book harder to put down and easier to pick back up again.

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