Unspoken rules guide so much of life, and one such guideline is that polite people don't discuss politics or religion. Now, while I might disagree with that rule when it comes to dinner parties (where so much of the conversation is deadly dull), I have to admit that it generally holds true in narrative fiction. Most authors lack the panache or subtlety to address either subject without turning their stories into screeds. So when both show up in the first six pages of Andrew Klavan's new thriller The Identity Man, I imagine many readers' blood pressures will tick up a notch in nervous anticipation.
The man who calls himself John Shannon would be the first to admit he isn't a good person. A B&E specialist, he's stolen from more homes and businesses than he'd care to remember. But Shannon would also be quick to state that he's never done anything sick, never hurt or raped anyone. If only the police believed that. See, after a botched job, a wrathful associate fingered Shannon for the Hernandez killings, crimes so brutal they became fixtures on the evening news, crimes that Shannon had no hand in. On the run and out of options, Shannon gets contacted by a mysterious benefactor who offers him a new face and new papers -- an entirely new identity. He goes under the knife and emerges from an anesthetic fog in a different city, one ravaged by crime and a horrific flood and the disingenuous promises of a silver-tonged politico. As he tries to build a new life, joining a construction crew and falling for the daughter of a client, Shannon gradually realizes something has gone terribly wrong. A mysterious man seems to shadow his every move, and then one day, without warning, the police show up ...
At first, I thought The Identity Man was shaping up to be a mediocre thriller, one with a thematic chip on its shoulder. It felt uneven and occasionally didactic with odd, almost childlike asides on spiritual renewal and media corruption. As Shannon mulled over the lawlessness of his new urban home (an amalgamation of several U.S. cities) and the pace slowed around the midway point, I began to wonder whether I was reading a thriller at all. Then it hit me: It wasn't. The simple diction, the odd leaps in plotting, the periodic lessons on political integrity and the role of personal faith -- Klavan had written a fable. A crime fable, yes, but a fable all the same. That understanding spiked my enjoyment immensely. You might fault a mystery for an implausible denouement or an adventure when its veers into lesson mode. But not a fable, where theme is king. With The Identity Man, one must strip away the crime-fiction façade to reveal the real genre hiding beneath.
(Picture: CC 2009 by The Real Darren Stone)