BRITISH writer William Boyd is not one to hang around doing nothing. Since his first book in 1981, Boyd has published a further 11 novels, at least 12 screenplays, a handful of short story collections and numerous newspaper essays and articles. He was also the man behind one of modern literature’s most celebrated hoaxes, when his faux memoir of a fictional modern artist duped many who should have known better. Boyd is versatile and prolific, to say the least.
Similar swiftness can be found in his latest novel, Ordinary Thunderstorms. Within the first chapter, Boyd harries us through three key London locations, introduces three pivotal characters, kills one and leaves another unconscious. The dying man is discovered by our eventual hero, Adam Kindred, a climatologist visiting London from the United States, ostensibly for a job interview. Kindred’s casually-swung briefcase is certainly responsible for the unconsciousness, but he is no murderer. His fingerprints are on the knife only as he attempted to pull it from the midriff of a dying man, and his name is in the downstairs visitors’ book for purely innocent reasons.
Still, before we can catch breath, Kindred is a fugitive, hunted by the police and a hit-man, and is apparently in possession of secrets that could bring down a multi-billion dollar corporation. He hunkers down, changes identity and the chase begins – at times like John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, at others reminiscent of Graham Greene and The Third Man.
Boyd is, above all, a storyteller, and there is a commendable commitment to character and plot in Ordinary Thunderstorms, alongside a central preoccupation with one man’s identity and the possibilities for salvation and personal reinvention in the modern world. Stripped of all the trappings of the educated and privileged, Kindred finds himself in a battle for survival, feeding from the kindness of strangers but competing on a primal level against others’ base instincts for evil, for personal profit, and to kill. The name Adam is not coincidental, and neither surely is Primo, one of Kindred’s alter-egos, again suggesting some kind of pioneer.
While Kindred remains our driving force, no character is cast to the peripheries. The hit-man Jonjo and the police inspector Rita are fleshed out beyond their simple function, as is the executive Ingram Fryzer. The latter is perhaps rather lazily cast as a recreational sexual deviant, peeling off his business suit in the company of cheap call-girls, but is more convincing as a conscience-crossed CEO. The back-story to Ordinary Thunderstorms – unknown to either Kindred or the police – concerns the widespread supply of a miracle asthma drug, certain to make millions for the holders of its patent but, according to trials, also with potentially fatal side effects.
This reminded me of Harry Lime’s penicillin racket in The Third Man, especially in the ruthless profiteers’ scorn for the masses. But while Greene’s amoral schemer (now forever remembered as Orson Welles) was consigned to the sewers beneath war-ravaged Vienna, the villains in Ordinary Thunderstorms operate in the boardroom of a pharmaceutical company, whose infection spreads through the high ranks of the military and police.
Even Lime’s dank tunnels, however, seem relatively safe beside the squalid inner-city housing projects of south-east London, where Kindred is forced to seek refuge. The Shaftesbury Estate is the unlikely setting for much of the novel, the kind of place where crying infants are routinely drugged to hasten bedtime, primarily so that a mother can begin the kind of night’s work for which she too will be expected to go to bed. Boyd sends Kindred deep undercover into these forgotten realms, and he examines with keen, non-judgmental eyes.
There is a real smoothness to the way plots weave into one another, and to the manner in which the focus of Kindred’s story alternates between breathless mortal danger and the mundane normalcy of a man piecing together a life from scratch. Kindred is exploited and abused but also nourished and encouraged; notions of anything “ordinary” are a red herring.
“Ordinary thunderstorms have the capacity to transform themselves into multi-cell storms of ever-growing complexity,” reads a quote from a climatology textbook that prefaces the action. Like everything else in this novel, its selection is expertly judged.
22. Mar 2010 at 0:00 | Howard Swains