Friday, December 7, 2012

Review of The Vanishing Point by Val McDermid (Little Brown, 2012)

Stephanie Harker is transiting through Chicago airport with Jimmy, a five year old boy for whom she is the legal guardian.  Caught in the security check area she watches in horror as Jimmy is led away by a security guard.  When she tries to intervene she is tazered to the ground.  It takes a while for the authorities to realise that Stephanie is not a security risk and a child has been abducted in plain view of their officers.  By then Jimmy and his abductor are long gone.  FBI agent Vivian McKuras is charged with recovering Jimmy, but first she needs to know all about their lives, and who might want to snatch him.  As McKuras listens to their story, on the other side of the Atlantic, Met police officer Nick Nicolaides also hunts for clues.  The consensus is that the abductor is someone that Stephanie and Jimmy knows, but who?

The Vanishing Point tries to mash together a conventional thriller with c-list celebrity culture.  Stephanie Harker is a professional ghost writer who drafts the life stories of famous folk and Jimmy is the son of a reality television star, Scarlett Higgins, a kind of cross between Jade Goody and Katie Price that draws heavily on aspects of both these women’s lives (most definitely in the case of Goody).  The opening premise and performance of the abduction is nicely done, providing a tense entree.  For the next two thirds of the tale the reader is presented with a very detailed back story account of Stephanie and Scarlett.  At one level, the back story is an interesting take on celebrity culture, and the characters are very well drawn with some nice observational touches.  The writing is engaging and McDermid’s voice intimate.  However, the focus on the back story creates an imbalance between the context and the chase.  It also does not ring true in the sense that time is of the essence in terms of tracking down Jimmy, but Stephanie is telling a very drawn out tale to the FBI.  There is simply no sense of urgency beyond the initial abduction.  Where the story really becomes unstuck, however, is the final quarter and the denouement.  The chase actually proves to be incredibly fast and straightforward, despite a couple of twists, and the closing scene was contrived and unbelievable.  Overall then, although the setup and the back story are both nicely done, they didn’t connect sufficiently well, and the overall plot arc was imbalanced and lacked credibility.

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