Book Review: The Chain by Adrian McKinty
By Thomas PluckJuly 8, 2019
A stranger has kidnapped your child. To free them, you must abduct someone else’s child. This is The Chain by Adrian McKinty.
She’s sitting at the bus stop checking the likes on her Instagram feed and doesn’t even notice the man with the gun until he’s almost next to her.
She could have dropped her school bag and run across the marshes. She’s a nimble thirteen-year-old and she knows all the swamps and quicksands of Plum Island. There’s a little morning sea fog and the man is big and clumsy. He’d be nervous about pursuit and he’d certainly have to give up the chase before the school bus came at eight o’clock.
All this goes through her head in a second.
The man is now standing right in front of her. He’s wearing a black ski mask and pointing the gun at her chest. She gasps and drops her phone. This clearly isn’t a joke or a prank. It’s November now. Halloween was a week ago.
“Do you know what this is?” the man asks.
“It’s a gun,” Kylie says.
I have a love-hate relationship with thrillers.
They aren’t as easy as they look, which Richard Price learned when he thought he would bang out The Whites as a potboiler and spent just as long on it as his other novels. The thriller used to be considered the cynical cash-grab; it was disrespected. The term “literary thriller” was invented to make snobs enjoy reading thrillers; when women consistently wrote the best thrillers in the business, they were renamed “domestic suspense” or “psychological suspense” so the old boys wouldn’t feel butthurt at having to compete.
But I still get a little apprehensive when a writer whose work I love steps out of their wheelhouse to get in the driver’s seat of a thriller, which requires tightrope walk tension and great care in tending the reader’s suspension of disbelief. If you cut the tension or lose the reader’s attention, you are lost. I had little concern when Adrian McKinty announced his next book wouldn’t be another brilliant entry into his Sean Duffy series, police novels set in ‘80s Northern Ireland, because he mastered the mystery genre long ago and he takes his work very seriously. He respects the reader, the work, and the writers who have gone before him. When you crack open a Duffy novel you walk into his house, and your time spent as his guest is joyful and memorable. You’ll learn some history, meet a bunch of intriguing people, see old crimes and atrocities revealed, and puzzle your way through a story that may seem convoluted but makes perfect sense when the human nature of those involved comes to light. They are character driven, and while Duffy’s keen investigative eye and fiercely stubborn pursuit of justice are formidable, it’s his knowledge of people that brings him to the solution. You get a musical and classical literature education thrown in for free, and you’ll find yourself putting together a Duffy playlist to listen to as you read. You may also try to match Sean’s weed and whiskey intake, at your peril. But McKinty doesn’t shy from the need for a peeler (or anyone!) in NI during the Troubles to self-medicate.
When I first heard the premise of his newest novel, I had to hand it to Mr McKinty. He’d come up with one that rips your heart out, and requires that you care about the characters:
YOUR PHONE RINGS.
A STRANGER HAS KIDNAPPED YOUR CHILD.
TO FREE THEM YOU MUST ABDUCT SOMEONE ELSE’S CHILD.
YOUR CHILD WILL BE RELEASED WHEN YOUR VICTIM’S PARENTS KIDNAP ANOTHER CHILD.
IF ANY OF THESE THINGS DON’T HAPPEN:
YOUR CHILD WILL BE KILLED
YOU ARE NOW PART OF THE CHAIN
I don’t have children, but this chilled me to the heart. I’ve dealt with loss and I know what I would do to get back loved ones that were taken from me. When I shared this on social media, many (writers, of course–we’re a catty, jealous lot) said that it makes no sense because the parents would be so emotionally wrecked they couldn’t kidnap another child! They’d be caught and it would be over…
Let me speak from experience that you don’t know what you are capable of until you are forced to learn. And in the hands of a skilled writer like McKinty, you have nothing to fear. He has children, he grew up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and has proven a dozen times over that he knows how to write people enduring long-term trauma of terrorism, occupation, and kidnapping without cheapening the reality of it. And he brings that experience and talent fully to bear upon the reader with The Chain.
The opening scene is brilliant, but it’s as harrowing as we expect. A teenager getting kidnapped at gunpoint is inherently inciting; McKinty doesn’t use any tricks of the trade to make this story more relentless than it needs to be. We spend time with our characters. The chapters aren’t very short, the language isn’t tilted and terse. He doesn’t eschew the poetics and embrace of the classical that make the Sean Duffy novels so enjoyable, but he gives the scenes the drive they are due. His voice is here, but he is relating to you a story that is still raw. Showing you road rash from when he spilled his café racer a week or so back, not telling how he got an old scar long puckered into gristle. But I won’t share the opening scene. Let’s meet Rachel. The mother of Kylie, the girl abducted by raw-nerved amateurs on the first few pages, is on her way to see her oncologist. She was in remission, but something bad appeared on her latest test.
Her phone begins to ring, startling her.
Unknown Caller, it says.
She answers with the speakerphone. “Hello?”
The voice continues obliviously: “In five minutes, Rachel, you will be getting the most important phone call of your life. You are going to need to pull your car over to the shoulder. You’re going to need to have your wits about you. You will be getting detailed instructions. Make sure your phone is fully charged and make sure also that you have a pen and paper to write down these instructions. I am not going to pretend that things are going to be easy for you. The coming days will be very difficult but The Chain will get you through.”
Rachel feels very cold. Her mouth tastes of old pennies. Her head is light. “I’m going to have to call the police or—”
“No police. No law enforcement of any kind. You will do just fine, Rachel. You would not have been selected if we thought you were the sort of person who would go to pieces on us. What is being asked of you may seem impossible now but it is entirely within your capabilities.”
A splinter of ice runs down her spine. A leak of the future into the present. A terrifying future that, evidently, will manifest itself in just a few minutes time.
“Who are you?” she asks.
“Pray that you never find out who we are and what we are capable of.”
The line goes dead.
She checks the caller ID again but the number is being withheld. That voice though. Mechanically disguised and deliberate, assured, chilly, arrogant. What can he mean about getting the most important phone call of her life? She checks her rearview mirror and moves the Volvo out of the fast lane and into the middle lane just in case another call really is coming in.
She picks nervously at a line of thread that’s coming off her red sweater just as the iPhone rings again.
Another Unknown Caller.
She stabs at the green answer key. “Hello?”
“Is this Rachel O’Neill?” a voice asks. A different voice. A woman. A woman who sounds very upset.
She wants to say no, she wants to ward off the impending disaster by telling her that actually she has started using her maiden name again—
Rachel Klein—but she knows there’s no point. Nothing she can say or do is going to stop this woman from telling her that the worst has happened.
“Yes,” she says.
“I’m so sorry Rachel, I’ve got some terrible news for you. Have you got the pen and paper for the instructions?”
“What’s happened?” she asks, really scared now.
“I’ve kidnapped your daughter.”
This is what makes The Chain so harrowing and memorable. We know these people. Maybe we are these people. And of course, the sharp reader may ask why the diabolical hackers behind The Chain would target a weak link like a single mom with cancer? You’ll learn in time. There’s a Shakespearean drama playing out, and everyone is in their humor. The entire second half of the book, where most thrillers fire the afterburners, is like the moments after a bomb’s gone off. We’re recovering, so are the characters, and the real work begins. So many stories treat trauma cheaply, like a scrape where whiskey serves as Bactine, but McKinty does not. It lingers for years. This story brought me back to thirty years ago, when I revived a loved one, learned that my world was not what it seemed—I have only seen my privileged, entitled façade—and that I would be living in an entirely different life, one I’d sneered at when it was endured by others. The Chain is that real, but gives the reader just enough remove to be entertained and chilled, instead of traumatized.
He also gives us villains that are all too real. They are certainly evil, but not of the mustache-twirling variety. We learn just enough to believe it, without becoming mired in “understanding” it. If you’ve ever been vindictive in the slightest, perhaps you didn’t hold the elevator door when you could have, because the person running was rude to you once? That’s all you need to understand some kinds of evil. That little thrill is addictive, empowering. Sending someone a nasty anonymous letter, and clutching their imagined response in your mind. That’s a spoonful of evil. The people behind the chain prefer a tall glass of it, and they like it icy cold.
Lately I’ve enjoyed quite a few thrillers: Black Swan Rising by Lisa Brackmann, for one. Others have made me think, “Really?” when the characters bend belief to serve the plot. The Chain never falters. It gives us characters doing their best when things are at their worst. They don’t become superheroes, they don’t crumble into dust. They do what they need to survive, and they live with it.
The Chain is a thriller I loved.
Disclaimer: Mr McKinty blurbed my second novel, Bad Boy Boogie, and also generous plied me with Writer’s Tears whiskey when we first met in Queens a year or so ago.