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Rules of Vengeance

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In my post last December reviewing books I had read over the previous eight months (prompted by my recognition that I had failed to keep up with the prodigious pace of book reading set by Karl Rove and George Bush), I mentioned reading Christopher Reich’s Rules of Deception, a bestselling thriller from last summer. As I noted there, I was inspired by Janet Maslin’s NYT review. My brief description: “Hardly a great book, but I liked it enough that I’ll probably read his next one when it comes out.”

Well, now I have. It’s Rules of Vengeance, and it continues the story of the two characters introduced in Rules of Deception, Jonathan and Emma Ransom. It came out just last Tuesday. I had pre-ordered it from Amazon, received it Wednesday, finished it on Saturday. I still don’t know what to look for or what standards to set for thrillers, having all but given up reading them for decades, until Janet Maslin’s review a couple of springs ago of Lee Child’s newest prompted me to read it. I thought it was gripping but silly. I was more impressed with its successor, which I read in June and enjoyed so much that I got one of the earlier ones.

My impression is that Christopher Reich is not particularly strong in the prose stylist department — I prefer Lee Child — but he certainly knows how to create plots with lots of unexpected turns. His principal character, Jonathan Ransom, is appealing, but was more so in the first book of the “Rules” series. I don’t want to say too much, for fear of spoiling the plots, but what made the first book special was the unexpected way in which our hero, working for Doctors Without Borders, gets embroiled with spies and holds his own. The second time around, there’s not the same thrill of discovery, though the plot twists are every bit as good.

As for prose style, I’ll give two examples of passages that puzzled me. Or rather, completely bugged me. First, on page 209, we find the following excerpt of a dialogue:

“He was worried about an accident at a power plant. A nuclear plant. … If Robbie wanted to talk to the IAEA about a possible ‘accident’, and he was interested in how well or poorly guarded the plants were, … ”

What bugs me? The quotes around the word ‘accident’ in its second appearance. What’s the point of them? Was the speaker making physical air quotes as she said the word? And if not, how do we know she was setting the word apart this way? Or is Reich trying to tell us something that the speaker couldn’t have been? Whatever the explanation, it stopped me dead.

And how about this, on page 336?

Allô,” he answered. French spoken with a foreigner’s accent.

“Is this VOR SA?” responded Jonathan, also in French.” …

“Who is calling?”

“My name is Jonathan Ransom. … ”

“Please hold the line.” The accent betrayed the soft t and jagged s of Central Europe.

Okay, so, after hearing only the words “Allô. Who is calling? Please hold the line” (in French of course), Jonathan deduced from the soft t and jagged s that the speaker is central European. Here’s the thing. This is totally lost on the reader unless the reader first takes the trouble to imagine the French words the speaker used in saying “Who is calling” and “Please hold the line,” after which the reader can scan them for appearances of s and t. At least that’s what I found myself trying to do. What’s the point of telling us what betrayed the accent when we aren’t given the actual French dialogue? I’m not saying I wish the dialogue were in French. It’s just that if Reich isn’t going to provide us with the French dialogue, why bother telling us what sounds Ransom heard?

Yes, these are minor issues. But they get in the way. Quibbles aside, I enjoyed the book. If there is to be a third Ransom “Rules” book, I will read it.

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