Monday, April 30, 2012

Mission Canyon by Meg Gardiner

Mission Canyon by Meg Gardiner, 2008

People ask me whose fault it was. Who caused the accident? Where did the blame lie--on reckless driving, blinding sunlight, a sharp curve in the road? Hidden in their questions is a deeper query. Did Jesse bring it on himself? Was he careless? Perhaps he rode his bike into the middle of the road. Perhaps he insulted God. Maybe that's why he won't be walking me down the aisle, they imply.

What people want to hear, I think, is that the accident was fate, or foolishness. The hit-and-run killed Isaac Sandoval outright. It left Jesse Blackburn broken on the hillside, struggling to reach his friend's body. And people wanted me to tell them that yes, it was the victims' fault. Jesse should have done something different, should have looked over his shoulder or flossed his teeth every day. What they want me to say is no, of course it could never happen to them. They want reassurance, and I can't give it to them.

When they ask me whose fault it was, I've always said: the driver's. It was the fault of the man who sat behind the wheel of a satin-gray BMW, arcing up a narrow road into the foothills of Santa Barbara, with one hand on the steering wheel and one hand caressing the hair of the woman whose head bobbed above his lap. It was the fault of the man getting the blow job. It was the fault of the guy who got away.

That's what I always told people. Until now.---- (page 1)

I hesitate to say that Mission Canyon is a perfect thriller, but for me, it comes darn close. It ticks every single one of my boxes, fulfills every one of my requirements for what makes a great thriller. Gardiner is one sharp, funny, incisive writer, and she knows how to spin a twisty, nail-biting plot. Her characters are a terrific mixture of quirky and totally human, and unlike China Lake, the first book in the Evan Delaney series, the villain is both unexpected and truly scary. This is one of the best mysteries I've read in a long time.

The book's plot stems from a seemingly simple incident: while biking in Santa Barbara, best friends Jesse Blackburn and Isaac Sandoval are mowed down by a reckless driver. Isaac is killed and Jesse is paralyzed from the waist down. Years later, the driver, a white-collar criminal wanted for embezzlement, returns to Santa Barbara, dredging up Jesse's guilt and desire for revenge. As strange new facts come to life and a pack of ruthless gangsters come to town, Jesse's fiancee Evan is drawn into an impenetrable and deadly tangle of shocking secrets, far-reaching cover-ups and cold-blooded murder.

I'll get my only main criticism out there at the start: the opening chapters are a slippery info dump. Gardiner introduces too many characters with too many unlikely connections in a small space of time, and it comes off as a little frenzied. That's okay, though, because once the clumsy introductions are past, the plot takes off like a rocket and never lets up.

Like all good mysteries, Mission Canyon's center is layers of character interactions. Jesse's barely controlled rage, his intense survivors' guilt and his burning hatred of the man responsible for his paralysis comes across beautifully, as do Evan's complex feelings about marrying someone who is handicapped. Their relationship, nicely established in China Lake, is really put through the wringer in this installment; their no-holds-barred arguments are truer and deeper than you might expect from characters in a thriller. Jesse's friendship with Isaac's brother Adam is another example of Gardiner's ability to depict strikingly real relationships in the middle of a blisteringly fast-paced, high-concept narrative.

Not all of Gardiner's characterizations are as true to life; she's not above writing a caricature. In China Lake, the caricatures were the villains, a device that just didn't work well. Here, we have Evan's cousin Taylor, a glitzy, loud-mouthed lingerie saleswoman from the Midwest. Taylor may be cartoonish, but she's a lot of fun, injected in the narrative both as comic relief and as a sly way to display the kind of reaction that Evan's family might have to her marrying someone disabled. Thankfully, most of the novel's characters have more depth than Taylor; in fact, most of them have multiple layers that are peeled away before the end. Perhaps most importantly, for a thriller, the villains are all believably threatening and scary. Mickey Yago, the cold-blooded leader of i-heist, would have been an effective Big Bad, but in a book as packed as this one, he's merely a decoy.

The real villain is only unmasked at the novel's end, and there are a hell of a lot of twists before that revelation. This is one of those great plots that only clicks together when we have all the facts. Gardiner doesn't do predictable, and it's been a long time since a mystery writer has made me jump through so many hoops. I'm usually fairly adept at figuring out the structure of a story, but Mission Canyon had me on the edge of my seat nearly the entire time. And I did not see the endgame coming, even though everything fit together close to perfectly. Putting together a plot that good must have been incredibly difficult. While not everything in the story is completely plausible (a chase scene set in an old church is a bit of a stretch), Gardiner accomplishes the thing that every high-concept writer has to do: convince us that it is. Her characters are so well drawn and her pace so breathless that I rarely considered how delightfully nutty the book is in places. Her action scenes can be over-the-top, but she sells her characters so well as real people that they work anyway.

By the end, Gardiner has woven a complex and perfectly paced thriller with both an emotional punch and a serious funnybone. The way she blends the light and the dark, the pulse-pounding suspense and the quiet, searing emotion, is absolutely masterful. Mission Canyon is without a doubt one of the best mysteries I've read in a long time, and I can't wait to see where the series goes next. The further adventures of Evan and Jesse are looking awfully enticing.

NEXT UP: The cheerful hit YA novel, The Book Thief, which is a real knee-slapping good time. Not.

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