I place a lot of importance on the first page of a novel, and William Boyd’s first page of Ordinary Thunderstorms (2009) is a doozy.
It almost made me forget the book I was reading and move quickly on to the second page and the third… and …
Page one is perfectly in tune with the marketing cover design:
…swept along with the thundering narrative tide – Observer.
A thriller of hide and seek among London’s low life. – Tatler
A storm of a story – Daily Mirror
A compelling fugitive chase … – Evening Standard Books of the Year
I can’t remember when I’ve had a more exciting read. – Antonia Fraser
Thrilling, hilarious, intricately plotted and terrifically readable – Craig Raine, TLS Books of the Year;
and the best one saved for the front cover:
A deft combination of suspense and literature. – Stephen King
I was hooked and looked forward eagerly to starting it.
And the opening of the story doesn’t disappoint. A successful and upwardly mobile climatologist, Adam Kindred, goes into a cafe after a very important job interview, a job that could define his career, to wind down. He makes casual conversation with a man at the next table, a man who leaves behind a file. Adam surveys the technically challenging documents and finds a phone number which he rings and arranges to return the file to the man’s hotel room. When he arrives he finds the man on his bed with a knife in his chest. The man demands Adam pulls it out. “Pull it out!” Adam obeys and promptly the man dies leaving Adam with the bloody murder weapon in his own hand – and the murderer out on the balcony. He runs.
He runs and disappears; and it’s the disappearing and the people he discovers on the way that take up the bulk of the novel. This is fascinating but not particularly thrilling, in the sense that a thriller is thrilling. His particular method of disappearing is simple and surprisingly effective. He completely avoids the modern world that is defined by electronics. He doesn’t use his smartphone and he doesn’t use his credit card; the devices that make any human being knowable and traceable.
He is forced to sleep under a bush under a bridge; he is forced to count every penny he has in his pocket and use it wisely, he is forced to eat a seagull; he is forced to beg, and develops an intriguing, if dishonest, but effective method; he is forced to change his appearance – from a clean-shaven man with a head of hair to a bearded baldy; he is forced into a saintly refuge where he garners a new name, new friends, and is taken in by a prostitute called Mhouse – a wonderful literary creation – and her two-year old son, Ly-on whom she drugs as she can’t always afford a baby sitter. Through luck and circumstances of his own making he obtains yet another identity and consolidates that identity with a credit card and a smartphone. He turns into someone else.
Of course the police are after him as well as the murderer and the murderer’s superiors and these characters are equally interesting; but of course, they are after Adam Kindred, a man who no longer exists. There are close-shaves and the stakes are high, but there is also romance and an ending that I won’t go into. No spoilers here.
I have been hearing about William Boyd for some time. He is a playwright, short story writer, screenwriter, and director and the author of highly praised and award winning books; he has been on the Booker Prize list twice and won the Costa Book of the Year in 2006 with his novel Restless; and I also understand why he was chosen by the Ian Fleming estate to write a James Bond novel called Solo which came out in 2013. I get the feeling that Ordinary Thunderstorms is one of his minor works and while I enjoyed it, it’s interesting and entertaining but not accurately reflected by the hype on the cover.
What did someone say once about how not to judge a book?
There are many enjoyable videos of William Boyd on Youtube such as this one: An evening with the Sunday Times bestselling author, recorded at the Duchess Theatre 24 September 2018.
You can find many books by William Boyd, including Ordinary Thunderstorms, in various formats here.