BY NICO VREELAND

Author: Michael Robotham

2011, Mulholland Books

Filed under: Thriller

The line between “mystery” and “thriller” often gets blurred, but some novels stay staunchly to one side. The Wreckage, for instance, knows its a thriller, and I’m glad it doesn’t misrepresent itself. But it could’ve used a bit more mystery.

Robotham doesn’t try to fool you, and he doesn’t pace clues out at intervals, to give his narrative a lift when it sags in the middle. The second acts drags, weighed down by long passages where we wait idly by as the book’s heroes do the grunt work of investigation. By that point, we know the outline of the crime at the heart of the story and we’re filling in often inconsequential details; personally, I could’ve used more mystery right about here.

On the plus side, Robotham doesn’t cheat, so the heroes’ victories feel honest, and action sequences—like the riveting ending—captivate. All in all, The Wreckage has its lulls and its rapids, but it’s worth the ride.

Robotham’s plot centers around the war in Iraq, and the U.S.’s tactic of shipping millions upon billions of dollars to Baghdad (in huge blocks of cash), earmarked for the rebuilding effort. That cash gets spectacularly mismanaged—and that story is true. In the novel, we follow a journalist named Luca—a questionably sane, Arabic-speaking American who lives “outside the wire” in the unsecured zone of Baghdad. Luca begins to notice a suspicious pattern of bank heists, and following the money uncovers a quite massive conspiracy.

Meanwhile, a retired (disgraced) ex-detective named Ruiz picks up the other end of the case in London when a girl dupes, drugs, and robs him. Unbeknownst to each other, Ruiz and Luca work both ends toward the middle.

Robotham nails a few facets of this setup. He knows the life of a war correspondent like Luca, and it shows—while the picture of Iraq isn’t a clear or particularly enlightening one, the picture of a death-defying journo comes through with chilling sharpness.

For instance, in this passage a State Department goon sums Luca’s life up for him:

“You think you understand this place, Mr. Terracini, just because you speak the language, but you’re no different to the other hacks and glory hounds who turn up here wanting to put gloss on a new career or resurrect a fading one. You look at this country and think you’re going to sum it up in a thousand crisp words, but you wind up in the bar of the al-Hamra trying to make sense of the horror. Nobody understands this place.”

It’s a bleak picture, and Robotham’s most nuanced moments come at times like these, when his characters get surprised by the life awaiting them.

Those characters, while not strikingly original, are fun to watch. Ruiz’s bulldoggishness and his likeable, stubborn personality make him a pleasure to read. Luca isn’t quite as cool as Ruiz, but his arrogance and savviness keep him from being a dud.

Robotham’s prose rarely stumbles, and though he has too much fondness for incomplete sentences, his bright moments can be quite amusing. Like this one:

His mother has left six [emails], most of them indecipherable. When Luca was last home he installed voice recognition software on her computer because she couldn’t type. Now she just yells at the screen and the words get jumbled.

Her latest missive could be about his great-aunt Sophia or it could be his mother’s cat Sophocles. One of them is dead.

These moments are a bit too rare to call Robotham a stylist or a jokester, but I prefer rare gems to the overcooked quipping of a Walter Mosley or a Michael Connelly.

Other facets of Robotham’s narrative fall a little flat. When Ruiz first wakes up and finds himself robbed—most especially, when he discovers that his daughter’s wedding present has been stolen—his searing need for revenge electrifies the story. Until 20 pages later, that is, when he tracks down the girl who robbed him and finds himself defending her from a much larger threat. After Ruiz’s unholy anger loses its focus, his mild desire to sort out one last case just doesn’t burn as bright.

And, as I mentioned, there’s some bloat. For instance, I don’t need to read the entire conversation Luca has with the guy who drives the cash across the border into Syria or Jordan or wherever. This points to a weak spot inherent in Robotham’s setup: after about 100 pages, the only questions left unanswered are who exactly is stealing this money and why. That’s not enough to hold keen interest, because, after all, the money is its own motive.

Still, with The Wreckage, you’ll get exactly what you pay for: a thriller. It’ll have a contemporary wartime conspiracy plot and a blockbuster climax, a bit too much bloat, and not enough mystery. Overall, it hits the mark more than it misses.

Similar reads: The Long Fall, by Walter Mosley; The Informationist, by Taylor Stevens; The Missing, by Tim Gautreaux

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