Alan Glynn is the author of The Dark Fields, the book on which the recent movie Limitless is based. Though I’ve neither read the book nor seen the film, I thought the premise (in which a drug is developed that allows the taker to use 100 percent of his/her brain capacity) was great, and was therefore pretty excited to read Glynn’s brand new thriller, Bloodland. My excitement lasted about a third of the way through the book—it’s about there that what I thought was a slow build had in fact fizzled into anticlimactic plot revelations, thin characterizations, and an eventual ending that managed somehow to come too soon even when I felt it couldn’t come soon enough.
The book’s lynchpin is freelance journalist Jimmy Gilroy, who is required by the law of all struggling young journalists named ‘Jimmy’ to be determined to uncover hidden truths no matter what. In this case, Jimmy is researching the death of Susie Monaghan, a starlet on her way to fame and a Lindsay Lohan level of trainwreck-itude. Susie died in a helicopter crash that was ruled an accident, but any article about her still causes paper circulations to spike; a book, Jimmy figures, should spike enough interest to give his career the jump-start it needs.
But when Jimmy’s mentor, Phil Sweeney, first asks, then orders, then begs Jimmy to lay off the Susie Monaghan story, Jimmy’s suspicions about the true significance of the helicopter crash are awakened. Interwoven with Jimmy’s story are scenes of the men who have much to lose should the conspiracy behind Susie’s death be revealed, including a former Irish Prime Minister and a US senator considering a run for US president.
The days when it was shocking to discover that public figures had dirty secrets are long gone, but successful conspiracy thrillers use engaging characters, or thought-provoking topical themes, or even just plain old fast-paced plot to suck in readers. Bloodland is working with some well-worn material (and to be fair, what isn’t well-worn these days?), but its elements are not imbued with any novelty, any outstanding depth, or even a sense of urgency.
It’s no spoiler to say that there’s more to Susie’s death than Jimmy originally believes, but the truth is by turns too mundane to provoke shock and too obscure to be accessible. The ending of the book trails off with little acknowledgement of any practical or emotional implications for Jimmy, and I felt I was left waiting for something more, as if this were the second book in a trilogy of which I hadn’t read the first or last installment.
Jimmy himself is a near-void. We know little about him aside from the fact that he is a journalist and idolizes his father, who did the same kind of work. There’s an attempt to make Phil Sweeney a kind of disappointing father-figure stand-in, but this relationship is not well-developed, and gives us little additional insight into who Jimmy is or sympathy for his struggles. When Jimmy meets Susie’s sister, Maria Monaghan, for an interview, I anticipated that a relationship between her and Jimmy would provide an angle by which I could view more of Jimmy’s workings. But this character is abandoned early in the book, and from there, Jimmy becomes a kind of novelistic postcard garden gnome, there to show us that he’s gone from Point A to Point B on the way to finishing his investigation.
The other POV characters are caricatures of the high-powered businessmen and politicians we generally envision when we think of corporate greed and government corruption. They’re white, they’re wealthy, they’re power-hungry, they undervalue their wives and children, and some of them are drunkards. One of them continually pines after his favorite sex worker. The women in their lives, whom we only see from these men’s points of view, are either sex objects or washed-up sex objects who are perceived by their husbands as mostly dead weight.
Three of the women in the book who present the possibility of more well-rounded female personalities, one of whom is Maria Monaghan, are given short shrift. One of them, journalist Ellen Dorsey, appears only in the last 60 pages of the book and serves entirely as a plot device.
Notwithstanding the lack of any sympathetic (or even highly interesting) characters and an excruciatingly slow, then disappointing, reveal, it’s evident that Glynn does have talent. Yes, the characters have little depth, but what’s there rings true: these are the shells, if nothing else, of people we’ve seen in the media over and over again, and we accept them as real. Despite over-reliance on sentence fragments and generally short lines to convey urgency, Glynn’s prose style could construct a gripping, effortless read if it were used to construct better material.
The ambition of the premise is also admirable, in the way it connects the dots between the personal, the national, and the global. Glynn obviously had in mind a far-reaching effect spiraling out from Susie’s death, but the more Bloodland’s plot spirals outward, the less one finds anything at the center to make following its course worthwhile.