Ordinary Thunderstorms: A Novel by William Boyd
Harper (January 26, 2011)
Imagine yourself caught up in an intrigue not of your making. You meet a stranger at a restaurant, strike up a casual conversation, then, once he's left realize he left behind him a folder connected to his work as a pharmaceutical chemist. You also know the information about a drug – Zembla 4 – in clinical trials is crucial. Being a good, considerate person you find a way to reach him, offering to drop the folder at his home. But when you get there he has a knife through his chest. He begs you to pull out the knife, which you do out of pity. On your way out you realize something chilling: your fingerprints are all over the knife, your shoe prints on the floor. But you had nothing to do with his murder. And, instinctually, took his folder with you.
This is what happened to Englishman Adam Kindred, a climatologist recently moved back to England after having lived in the United States, working as a university professor. After a brief fling with a student ends his marriage to a woman he felt reasonably sure he loved he feels he can no longer stay. So when a teaching position opens in an English university the thought of home pulls. He returns to Britain and interviews. The same day he meets Philip Wang, the chemist. It's also the same day he realizes life as he's known it is over.
With hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank he's reduced to the money he has in this wallet. He dares not use his bank card knowing any use of technology will lead the police straight to him. He must go "off the grid," hiding until the real killer is found, or he finds a way to clear his name, assuming another identity and more generic look until then. Survival depends on his wits alone.
In the meantime both the police and a former- military hired killer are hot on his trail. The hired killer is being paid very big money, and after a brief and brutal conflict with Adam early on has his own personal reason for revenge.
Maybe it's because I don't normally read in this genre – because I know this is rather formulaic – but it kept me gripped. Knowing Adam was innocent, watching him undergo near-misses, beatings and psychological trauma was excrutiating. I cared for him and the other good (or redeemable) characters. They were all fully-realized and sympathetic.
Adam was intriguing partially because he was very smart, showing the capacity for "everyman" to be cunning and healthily paranoid when necessary. Learning how to blend in with thousands of other faces in London proved he had street smarts to go along with that university education. Only the few times he reached out for help and companionship did he trip up, so hungry for human interaction he gave others the benefit of the doubt without realizing the potentially dangerous repercussions – to himself and them. When he was on his own his behavior seemed flawless. When he thought with his heart he made himself vulnerable.
I can see how others more familiar with the genre might not be as enthralled as I was. As I said earlier, it was obvious even to me the plot was well-used. I've seen it in countless films, and pulling back to enable objectivity I don't know of any way in which it actually broke that mold though the process by which drugs are made and pushed through trials into production was fascinating. Frightening, but fascinating.
Whichever side of the plot fence you're on the book is well-written. William Boyd's style flows smoothly, his characters and sense of place flawless. Not once did I feel the urge to grab a red pen and strike out over-written passages, which says a lot for me.
Would I read more William Boyd? Absolutely. It passes my test of what makes a great read – I could hardly put the book down and yearned to pick it back up again. I loved it.