[5 November 2013]
Jonathan Holt’s debut thriller, The Abomination, weaves together an arcane plot involving trafficked women, Croatian war criminals, women priests, the Catholic Church, the Mafia and the U.S. Army. Mixed in with all this is a sexy Italian policewoman, a plucky army officer, a brilliant but scarred computer programmer and his photorealistic online replica of Venice, in addition to numerous supporting characters, plot twists, red herrings and—hey, why not?—a steamy, sexy romance.
It’s probably easier to enumerate what isn’t in this novel – space aliens? Talking horses? A conspiracy of mimes? – than what is. That stuff will just have to wait for the final two installments of this proposed trilogy.
That The Abomination manages to juggle all these threads as well as it does is testament both to the author’s skill and to the headlong momentum of the plot, which begins with a female corpse dressed in a Catholic priest’s robes, discovered in a Venetian canal. Soon we are immersed in a fairly standard (but enjoyable) police procedural, albeit one set in Venice and populated by Italians, namely senior detective Aldo Piola—rugged, manly, a bit weary, you know the type – and the fiendishly hot Kat Tapo, a junior officer working on her first murder investigation, who also happens to be the only fiendishly hot Italian in existence (of either gender) who seems unaware of her fiendish hotness. Can you see where this is leading? Yeah, probably.
Sparks fly, predictably enough, but happily they don’t distract all that much from the overarching plot, or maybe plots. Two other major threads wend their way through these pages: the first concerns moody computer genius Daniele Barbo, the designer of Carnivia, that virtual reconstruction of Venice. Carnivia is an entirely closed system, encrypted against intruders and impervious to hackers, although of course they try their best. Therefore, the site’s virtual streets and palaces also offer a safe place for clandestine meetings. What kind of meetings? With whom, doing what? Well, now.
The other storyline concerns Second Lieutenant Holly Boland, a U.S. Army officer stationed at Camp Ederle, outside of Venice. Having grown up in Italy, Holly feels sympathy for a country that doesn’t always welcome American servicemen to its shores. When a Freedom of Information Act request causes Holly to follow a chain of evidence involving war crimes in the former Yugoslavia – and potential US collusion in a particularly gruesome situation – she is led to some unexpected places, both geographically and psychologically. Among them, the virtual cobblestones of Carnivia.
These disparate threads become progressively entangled as the plot advances (no surprise there) and the protagonists come under increasing danger. There are threats, beatings, executions, even missile strikes. That’s not a surprise either, although the clever resolution of the Big Picture, when it finally becomes clear, is satisfyingly logical, if rather convoluted.
More problematic is the sentence-level writing. Holt suffers from what I call “thriller-itis”, in which a large number of very brief chapters are rarely allowed time to stretch and develop. There are 76 chapters in this novel, many of them as short as two or three pages, which lends a certain breathlessness to the proceedings but also leaves the reader with a feeling of superficiality. This is unlikely to deter many thriller fans; as the millions who devoured The Da Vinci Code will attest, this is not a genre known for depth of character, and its lack is no obstacle to great success.
Plot is king in such books as these, and there’s no shortage of plot to be found here. Although there is some nod toward the character of Kat Tapo as someone who undergoes changes throughout the course of the story – her relationship with her co-worker seems to affect her as much as the horrific facts the unearths along the way – these shifts are of minimal importance in the scheme of the story. More important is the detective story at its heart.
Holt’s prose is efficient and workmanlike, with sentences that call no attention to themselves and rarely do more than simply convey information: “Kat woke on Sunday morning and registered a faint sense of disappointment. What was it? She glanced across at the empty side of the bed. No, it wasn’t that.” Back at Camp Ederle, Holly Boland discovers that “Males outnumbered females here by about three to one. It was one of the things you just got used to in the army. Coming from a family where she’d been the only girl amongst three brothers, she often wondered if that was one reason she was so comfortable with the military life.” There’s no sparkle to these sentences; they shuffle onstage, tell you what you need to know, and exit stage left.
Elsewhere, Holt falls into tour-guide mode, feeding the reader tidbits of information about Italy’s police forces, or the American military presence there; he also suffers from a bizarre affectation in which he refers to the dominant language spoken by most US citizens as “American” rather than “English”.
The Abomination isn’t a great book, but it’s not a bad one, either. It ticks off the requirements of a successful thriller and gets the job done. The last hundred or so pages are quite engaging, as the story shifts geographically and the hazard level ratchets upward. If you’ve ever wondered what secrets might be lurking in those Venetian canals, here’s your chance to find out.