Friday, December 16, 2011

2,523: The Informationist by Taylor Stevens

I was sent a copy of The Informationist by its publisher, Crown Publishing, for which I am very grateful despite feeling a little handicapped in my ability to review it.  You see, the book’s heroine, Vanessa ‘Michael’ Munroe, is being pushed as an alternative Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson’s monster-selling trilogy but, as I haven’t read this, I can’t possibly assess whether the comparison is fair or accurate.

Munroe is an “informationist”, someone who is highly skilled at obtaining information and analysing it.  A traumatic childhood in Africa has left her physically and mentally scarred but has made her a killing machine with an ability to blend into any culture.  She is also a naturally gifted linguist, being apparently able to speak 22 different languages.  

On the advice of Miles Bradford, a mercenary and business associate of Richard Burbank, CEO of Titan Exploration, an American oil company with interests in West Africa, Munroe is hired to investigate the disappearance of Burbank’s daughter, Emily, in southern Africa.

Having accepted the assignment, Munroe follows her own instincts and knowledge to look in a completely different African country for traces of Emily and, in doing so, is forced to face up to her own demons and past.  As the body count mounts, Munroe will stop at nothing to find the truth, which turns out to be completely unexpected and opens up both old and new wounds.

As one would expect from a debut novel, The Informationist is a mix of the good and the bad of thriller writing.  On the positive side, Stevens has come up with a good, solid plot and is strong on action scenes and pacing.  This, together with the frequent twists and turns in the story, makes for a real page-turner and I was continually wanting to know what happened next or, more often, why what things had just happened.

Stevens also conveys a real sense of the African countries in which the majority of the book is set, both in terms of the physical environments and the political and cultural life of those places.  She clearly has a good knowledge of West Africa and, interestingly, makes that part of the world come alive much more than the American and European locations she uses.

Unfortunately, the strengths of Stevens’ plotting and scene-setting aren’t matched by her dialogue.  Although she mostly avoids the trap of having her characters deliver lengthy pieces of exposition, much of the dialogue is pretty wooden and her characters speak indistinguishably from each other so that a Cameroonian document forger does not sound markedly different from an American executive.

If The Informationist was intended to be a stand-alone novel, all this would be fine and I’d be happy to recommend it as an above-average thriller with an unusual setting and premise.  Munroe is, though, intended to be the heroine of a series and this causes me a little concern.  She is depicted as sexy, talented, an invincible fighter, capable of killing without remorse either in cold blood or with a kind of berserker-style rage but, in the next minute, becoming a passionate lover, albeit one who is always in control.  My nearest comparator to her would be Jack Reacher, from Lee Childs’ series which I used to look out for but in which, in recent years, have lost all interest.

The main reason for this is that Reacher is, to all intents and purposes, unbeatable and a little too perfect to make an interesting lead character and I think that there is a risk that Munroe will also fall into this category.  Taylor Stevens, the author of The Informationist, like her heroine, had a traumatic and much-travelled childhood and, without wanting to pretend to be some kind of pop psychologist, I can’t help wondering whether Munroe may be her fantasy alter ego, someone who, from an equally unhappy background, has emerged as a kick-ass, don’t-mess-with-me individual.  Having already faced her demons in this first instalment, I’m not sure that Munroe will stay as interesting as the series progresses.  Steven’s plotting skills will need to be in tip-top condition to make this happen.

Overall, I’d still happily recommend this.  Africa is an under-explored region in thriller-writing, there’s plenty of action for aficionados and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  The sequel, The Innocents, is out later this month in the UK and I will be buying (although probably not until it comes out in paperback).  Only time will tell, though, whether Vanessa ‘Michael Munroe has the metaphorical legs to enter into the pantheon of thriller heroes and heroines.


Anonymous said...

Hello Falaise,
I think I may have to read this one. It seems only fair as, not to long ago, I read Cutting for Stone, much of which takes place in East Africa. AND, if the heroine is anything like Lisbeth Salander, sign me up! :-)

Ann Summerville said...

Good review.

Unknown said...

This sounds suspiciously like the EXACT plot of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, with a different setting...of course, I'm intrigued enough to want to check it out, even if it is a copycat.