Tuesday, December 28, 2010

China Lake by Meg Gardiner

China Lake by Meg Gardiner, 2002

Decent thrillers are easy to come by nowadays. There are plenty of authors who make a living writing respectable, passable thrillers (Dan Brown, David Baldacci, Sue Grafton, Brad Meltzer, Clive Cussler). Finding a really superior thriller author is a rare treat, and Meg Gardiner is without a doubt, a superior author. China Lake, her debut novel, is a wonderful read: funny, scary, smart and absolutely pulse-pounding.

As the book opens, California lawyer Evan Delaney is preparing for her brother's return to their childhood home, the China Lake military base. Evan has been caring for her brother's young son Luke while his father was stationed abroad. But when Evan encounters a fanatical religious cult called the Remnant, she discovers Luke's mother Tabitha has reappeared, now a faithful member of the Remnant, who plan to jump start the Apocalypse with an arsenal of biological weapons. And their insane leader wants Luke, and will stop at nothing to get him.

The plot unfolds beautifully, gaining layers of complexity as it unravels. Gardiner keeps things moving at roller-coaster pace, and effortlessly pulls off twist after twist. I haven't read thriller plotting this good since the last Lee Child novel.

But Gardiner's real secret weapon is her vibrant characters and snappy, witty dialogue. The cast of characters is expertly sketched(with a few exceptions). Evan is a highly appealing protagonist and her paraplegic boyfriend Jesse is equally likable. Gardiner even pulls off the difficult feat of making six-year-old Luke realistic rather than overly cutesy.

The book does have one glaring flaw, especially in the early pages. Gardiner's portrait of the Remnant is not quite believable. She makes them too overtly venomous and too gratuitously stupid. There is nothing seductive or fascinating about them; they're ugly one-dimensional ogres. Their goals and beliefs are totally over the top and Gardiner hits too many of the easy notes too often (they're sexists, racists, homophobes and all-around jerks).

Admittedly, Gardiner fleshes out the cult members a bit as the book progresses, and it's fairly easy to ignore the sloppy character work, especially when all hell is breaking loose elsewhere in the story. But it's too bad that Gardiner couldn't have taken a slightly more subtle approach.

The rest of the novel is pretty much gold. There are some truly amazing moments and reveals. The climax is tremendously exciting, wrapping up the story in an action-packed way, while leaving a small cliffhanger for the sequel (there are currently five Evan Delaney novels in print, with more on the way).

Another thing that Gardiner does well is fleshing out the world of her novel with small quirks and funny subplots (there's a wonderful running story involving bloodthirsty ferrets that pops up every now and then). Despite the seriousness of the novel's main plot, Gardiner has an excellent sense of the offbeat and odd that keeps things from being blandly straightfaced:

Yeltow stared into the pickup. They had most definitely gotten her. Glory drooped on the seat, her eyes wide, blood pouring from gunshot wounds in her face and chest. The blood running down her rib cage mixed with the white foam splattered inside the truck. It dripped onto the gun stuck in the waistband of her cargo pants, a nine-millimeter Beretta. Next to Yeltow, the young uniform looked nauseous. Death smelled sweet and creamy, he mumbled. What was that stuff?

Behind them Randi Brueghel was chattering to McCracken. "I heated it up on the stove," she said, "got it
so hot. The cans says 'Warning, contents under pressure,' so I thought, if I can make it burst it'll so totally distract Glory. . . ."

Yeltow saw the exploded canister, made out
-Wi on the side. The uniform said it sounded like a bomb. It did. How could he have known it was a can of Reddi-Wip?---(pages 320-321)

The book does get fairly far-fetched by the end, it's true, but less so than most mainstream thrillers. And far-fetched or not, I'm really not going to pick apart the novel's stellar final chapters. Any author who can keep me guessing that much, while also making me care about the characters, is highly skillful.

It's a shame that Gardiner is still largely unknown in the US. An Entertainment Weekly article by Stephen King praising the Evan Delaney series improved her marketability significantly, but she's still far from a household name. It's too bad that a dolt like James Patterson is making millions by churning out formula potboilers, while a thriller as all-around wonderful as China Lake gets ignored.

NEXT UP: The novel that was one of 2009's biggest publishing hits: Kathryn Stockett's The Help.

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