Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. In the past few decades, the thriller sub-genre has broadened its scope so that now there are many different kinds of thrillers. Although they have in common the tension buildup, the pacing and the suspense that characterise the sub-genre, they’re also increasingly diverse. Today let’s buckle ourselves in for the ride and take a closer look at the thriller. Let’s turn the spotlight on Max Kinnings’ Baptism.
The novel begins when Tommy Denning and his twin sister Belle leave Madoc Farm, a monks’ retreat and the seat of an Evangelical Christian group in Snowdonia. With them is Simeon Fisher, who also lives at Madoc Farm. Not long after they leave, we learn that their destination is the home of George Wakeham, a London Underground train driver. Wakeham has always wanted to make something of himself creatively; he played bass in a band called Crawlspace, he wanted to write, and he wanted to somehow make a real impact. That hasn’t happened for him though and now he drives for the Northern Line.
One morning, Wakeham is getting ready to leave for work when three hostage-takers break into his house and capture his family. Wakeham himself is told to go to his job and follow every instruction he gets through a special mobile ‘phone he is given; otherwise his family will die. With no other option he does as he’s told and soon takes his place in the driver cab of his train. Tommy and Belle Denning and Simeon Fisher, who are the hostage-takers, board the train as well and it’s not long before Wakeham finds out to his horror why he and his family were targeted. The hostage-takers intend to capture everyone on the train and they needed Wakeham’s driving skills to trap the train in an underground tunnel.
When word of the captured train gets out, DCI Ed Mallory is assigned to try to communicate with Denning and the other hostage-takers to find out what they want and what they intend. Mallory is a skilled hostage negotiator who has a special ability to sense subtleties in people’s voices and manner; he was blinded in a previous hostage-taking incident so he depends on his other senses to help him establish contact with hostage-takers and try to open up lines of communication with them.
As Mallory and the police work to find out who the terrorists are and what their plans are, George Wakeham does his best to stay alive and to keep his family and the train passengers alive too. What they all discover is that the terrorists have a very specific goal. The key to saving the passengers is finding out as much as possible about Tommy Denning, as they way he thinks and what he wants is crucial.
This is a thriller, so there is a very strong element of pacing, timing and action in this novel. There is also an element of psychological tension as Wakeham, Mallory and Denning work to outwit and outthink one another. We see this for instance in the driver-cab scenes between Denning, who’s taken up position there, and Wakeham, who’s trying to keep everyone, including himself, safe. We also see it as Mallory tries unsuccessfully to convince the authorities to take a certain course of action to free the train. Many (‘though certainly not all) thrillers contain violence and Baptism shows its colours as a thriller in that way too. Readers who prefer to avoid a lot of violence will be disappointed (or may want to peek through their fingers at some points in the novel).
The characters of Ed Mallory and George Wakeham are important elements in this novel too. Wakeham is an ordinary man who always wanted to be extraordinary, but doesn’t realise just how extraordinary he can be. He has to find courage he never thought he had and it’s interesting to see how his perceptions of what he is and ought to be change as the novel goes on. For his part, Mallory has plenty of personal baggage, especially regarding the case that left him blind. He has to deal with the fact that a hostage died during that negotiation and that now, the person in the best position to help free the train captives is that dead hostage’s widower. That said though, Mallory isn’t a stereotypical haunted cop. He deals with his life the best he can and it’s not hard to be on his side and Wakeham’s as they try to stop Denning.
One of the other elements that runs through this novel and adds to the tension is the sense of fear and claustrophobia as the train passengers realise that they’ve been trapped and try to escape. We get a real sense of what that might be like, and the passengers’ reactions are realistic. That tension builds as we discover exactly what the hostage-takers plan to do.
Although we know very quickly who the terrorists are, we don’t know at first much about them or exactly what they want. Nor do we know how and why they chose to capture train passengers and why they chose George Wakeham’s train. That information is revealed little by little as the novel evolves. Readers who dislike ‘information dumping’ will be pleased that backstories and other details are given as they’re relevant. The story is told from different points of view, and we see the hostage-taking play out from different characters’ perspectives. Readers who prefer one consistent point of view will be disappointed. But it’s clear throughout the novel whose point of view is being shared and Kinnings’ use of multiple perspectives allows us to see what’s happening on the train, in the driver cab, on ‘the outside’ and so on.
Baptism is a modern thriller with an innovative setting and some very high stakes. It features the sympathetic characters of George Wakeham and Ed Mallorty and plays out with the fast pace, tension and action that keep the story moving along. But what’s your view? Have you read Baptism? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 1 October/Tuesday 2 October – One Coffee With – Margaret Maron
Monday 8 October/Tuesday 9 October – The Sins of the Fathers – Lawrence Block
Monday 15 October/Tuesday 16 October – Raven Black – Ann Cleeves