Leading nowhere

Leading nowhere

One of the basic rules of writing thrillers is that characters must have a defined goal. This could be as simple a goal as “get out of this mess alive”, or as complicated as “make the general population aware of this conspiracy.” Executed properly, this makes the reader sympathise with the human drama in the middle of all the action.

It’s not enough that the characters have the motivation. The writer must also make us feel it. The hardest kind of thriller to pull off is one where the hero’s hidden motivation for doing everything is revealed at the end of the book (Alistair Maclean comes to mind here).
The payoff — or the evil plan — in that case had better be something jaw-dropping, otherwise readers will feel that they are wasting their time. It’s much safer to keep the reader in the know. Think of Lee Child here — we usually know what his hero is up to at any point, and the action alone is compelling enough to keep us hooked.

In the case of The Wreckage, Michael Robotham errs on all counts. We never quite know what the lead characters want to do (although they suffer through bombings, muggings, deportations…), and when the bad guys’ plans are finally revealed, they’re a disappointment compared to the buildup.

The plot follows three main strands. One is about a journalist, Luca, who is stationed in Baghdad. As we follow his routine for a few days, we realise that he’s very interested in a series of bank robberies. All these robberies specifically target US aid that recently arrived in Iraq. In the meantime, Luca also develops a romantic interest in a UN accountant who is in Baghdad to check for financial scams. Both of them stumble upon two angles of the same widespread scam, and begin to chase it. The shadowy bad guys also figure out what they’re trailing and pack them off out of the country. Just in time too, because the next link in their chain is in London.

In another thread, a retired policeman, Vincent, gets scammed and robbed by a young woman. One of the items she steals is an heirloom piece of jewellery, so he decides to track her down and retrieve it. When he does catch up, he finds out that a professional hitman is also on her trail, looking to recover something else she stole a few days ago. Vincent develops a protective instinct about her for some reason, and tries to protect her and nab the hitman.

The third thread is about a banker’s wife whose husband has suddenly vanished. While she is trying to track him down, she finds out that her husband’s partners were not entirely above board, and that their bank may have some connection to illegal money flowing in from — you guessed it — war-torn areas.

The three stories eventually converge and the lead characters form a team, all trying to find out what’s going on. Strangely, even though this is an international conspiracy involving billions of dollars, the biggest weapon the bad guys seem to have is one staccato hitman and a few bumbling acolytes. Even the climax seems disconnected from the rest of the plot.

The story of Wreckage is very much set in ‘today’ –— it talks of the mounting consequences of the UN’s occupation of Iraq, of the corruption of the various military contractors, linking it all to the ongoing financial crisis. That said, the world
described never seems to go beyond the popular news headlines and the information easily available on the internet. The environment in Iraq, for example, is
described entirely through the eyes of a western reporter. The parallel thread of a possibly shady financial institution comes to us through outsiders as well. We never get to see how these things work on the inside. The only ‘insider’, so to speak, is Vincent, the retired cop who has also featured in previous novels by Robotham, and who describes his history in the police force from time to time.

The writing style is punchy with lots of short sentences. This extends to the conversations and makes them sound like interrogations: “Where did you get that?” “It was not stolen.” “Where?” “We found them.” “Show me.” The bad part is that almost everyone seems to speak in the same way, from journalists to assassins to Armed Forces officials. On the plus side, Robotham does a good job with keeping the action fast-paced and engrossing, and the simmering tension between the various forces involved.

Overall, The Wreckage is a fun one-time read, moving at a good pace and allowing the plot to reveal itself in time. Don’t try thinking too deeply about what’s going on though, or you’re likely to raise questions that don’t have answers.

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