Review by Basil Ransome-Davies, 13 August 2019
I’m no great fan of fiction written exclusively in the present tense, for all its reputed ‘immediacy’; I generally fancy novels with a past. But that’s not to say it can never work. I more than once laid aside The Chain to do something else, only to be instantly recalled to it by the irresistible impulse of reader curiosity, even postponing a caffeine hit or quality time with the cat. McKinty knows how to lay a hook and how to build suspense. And he needs to, because he has chosen a scenario of mind-warping improbability. I use ‘scenario’ expressly because the precision-engineered short chapters accumulate and jostle like sequence shots in a movie, and because the plot is so fiendish and far-fetched it calls Alfred Hitchcock to mind.
It’s this. The title refers to a horrifying child-abduction scheme. Not only a ransom is demanded. The victims’ parents must snatch a child in turn, and so on ad infinitum. Anything goes wrong, the kid dies. Law-abiding citizens must be prepared to kill another’s son or daughter to save their own. Serial kidnappings constitute a chain of crime and suffering, massive emotional pressure, necessary lies and severe jeopardy, that magnifies the chance of error. Complicated chains traditionally have weak links in generic crime fiction. So why don’t the kidnappers just take the money and run? Is it a power trip? The approach is extreme, and, one would imagine, liable to multiply the risks taken by the criminals themselves.
If the premise is out to lunch, the upshot for lead character Rachel Klein is a waking nightmare superadded to the trials of being a divorced single parent and a cancer patient, plus the challenge of a job that will finally use her education – philosophy tutor at a local college. Sudden shock comes out of apparent security when Kylie, her daughter, is taken off the street at a school bus stop in Plum Island, a quiet community in Massachusetts. From then on Rachel is condemned to live another life, in The Chain, where her enforced task is to make another parent, probably a woman, undergo what is crushing her with agonised conflict. If she fails in any way to meet the criminals’ terms and conditions, Kylie is a corpse.
As the author later steps forward to remark, ‘The Chain is a cruel method of exploiting the most important human emotion–the capacity for love–to make money. It would’t work in a world where there was no filial or sibling or romantic love’. The sadist’s or sociopath’s heaven is Rachel’s hell; small wonder that one of the book’s epigraphs is Schopenhauer’s suggestion this world is ‘a kind of hell’. Schopenhauer was a famous misery-guts, but Rachel’s situation is nothing if not infernal. And her sole ally, given that she dare not involve the police, is a brother-in-law, Peter, who, though generous and loyal, carries his personal version of hell with him like a dragging ball and chain.
McKinty has divided the story into two subtitled parts: ’All The Lost Girls’ covers the first 42 chapters, ‘The Monster In The Labyrinth’ the remaining 35 up to a full dénouement. At the close of part one, in which each chapter is dramatically date-stamped (another cinematic device, as in the opening of Psycho, for instance) there is cause for hope and the pair have started a romance of mutual discovery, but Rachel fears that her ordeal is not all over. And she’s right. In The Chain each link is bonded to the previous and subsequent links. Until those have been cleared there is no release for the abductee. Part two therefore takes the form of a pursuit of the wrongdoers, and here the apparatus of modern digital communications technology, including the Dark Web, which has all along been wielded by the operators of The Chain to control and mystify their victims, is turned against them. The hackers are hacked, and the fightback intensifies as a historical legacy of psychotic violence and depravity dating back to a ‘slowly dying’ hippie commune in the late 1980s evolves into a desperate, life-and-death contest in the present.
No spoilers, but the reader may expect an explosive finale. I was reminded more than once of what Orwell wrote of Dickens – that in his fiction the long arm of coincidence has a boarding-house stretch – but who decides what is actually credible in the age of Trump, the internet, hacking, fake news, mass surveillance on the one hand and pathologically guarded secrecy on the other? This is a very American novel by a native Irishman (I’ve not read any of his earlier books) that ticks the generic boxes of paranoia, fear and loathing while countering them in the name of harmonised family values.
You can leave the cinema after a Hitchcock movie counting all the absurd, implausible and outrageous moments in what you have sat watching. The audacity of contrivance is terrific. But while you were in the audience, in his ‘world’, he had you so mercilessly in his grip you could believe six impossible things before breakfast, like the White Queen. McKinty has something of that gift.
Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.
Adrian McKinty, The Chain, (Orion, 2019). 978-1409189596, 352 pp., hardback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link – free P&P in the UK.