Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Robert Pobi’s Under Pressure, his second in the Lucas Page series, like his City of Windows, is a well-presented book with a richly endowed cover, this one depicting a city skyline devastated by a black cloud suggesting a catastrophe of mammoth proportions. (A cruel observation would be that the black cloud is a synecdoche for the quality of the book – but I won’t follow that thought any farther). The cover informs us that New York City is ‘under attack and the clock is ticking’. It is clear that this is to be a story where action, and plenty of it, is anticipated. The cover goes on to write of ‘an edge-of-your-seat thriller full of twists and turns’.
A well-written thriller will hold a reader’s attention as tightly as a well devised plot and astutely assembled characters in other genres will. Every novelist of any calibre accepts basic rules like these. The great novelists leave readers satisfied that the story they have just read was worth their time and, the absolute maxim, did not insult their intelligence. Under Pressure does not measure up.
The book is a catastrophe. It is not a thriller, no matter where the edge of the reader’s seat may be. The clock is not ticking. The characters are cardboard cut-outs – types rather than flesh-and-blood individuals – with one exception, Dr Lucas Page himself, who is patently ridiculous. Having no pretensions to a knowledge of science beyond the basic level, I cannot label the scientific aspects of this book nonsense, but they seem more so than not. The writer’s style suggests that he is trying too hard to make his prose memorable, but misses his mark with the same level of failure as his book achieves.
Under Pressure opens with an ordinary social gathering of New York’s richest in the Guggenheim Museum. The occasion is a celebration marking a new technology company’s next step forward. Subsequent happenings are introduced by a word picture of a drunken woman making a decision over the state of her sobriety. The book begins with a perfectly acceptable scene. But normality leaves with the body of the woman as the Guggenheim’s occupants – all 702 of them – are obliterated but with no damage to the museum.
Of course, every law-keeping body converges on the site of the disaster, each doing its best to destroy any evidence at the crime scene. Pride of place is bestowed on the FBI, whose leader Brett Kehoe, Special Agent in Charge of Manhattan, reads the reports of his underlings and decides solving the case is too hard and calls in Dr Lucas Page. The book progresses as a series of explosions targets individuals for a reason we learn each victim has in common. Since the criminal responsible for the slaughter is pretty much the only major character, apart from the investigating team, who has not been destroyed as the book draws to a close, it takes no Einstein to identify him as the killer.
Bodies occupy much of the landscape. The book begins with none for 702. Then agents, villains and civilians fall like flies. Some are more resilient than others. Agent Whittaker, an impossibly dominant (and unlikely) character, receives a bullet through her neck and another through a lung. Soon after, she’s back on duty. Lucas Page, a cyborg-like character, constructed of metal and sundry substances welded into his flesh, has parts blown off his body in at least two explosions but gets back on his feet after the necessary hospital visits without turning a hair. He is the central character whose brain, employing some sort of nonsensical mathematics, analyses a situation and identifies the source of an explosion within seconds.
There is a defined market for this book. It consists of the many millions of readers who accept any sort of blather served up to them. Uncritical acceptance in our world is widespread. The author understands this as he shows in his tales of New Yorkers coming out in support of the arch-murderer, and on the strength of the appellation The Machine Man, destroying their mobile phones. The writer’s use of figures of speech is geared for acceptance by the uneducated masses. An example is the speculation that two fishermen observing a scene were, “no doubt wondering if Snoop Dog had come to the beach to smoke a little jazz cabbage and snack on Pop-Tarts” (33). At times the author’s prose escapes his control and we read this:
It was a quiet tree-lined street that looked like it had been plucked from the pages of a post-war American novel about a father who taught his son how to be a decent man through their common love of baseball (244).
Enough has been said to indicate that this book is sub-standard in quality and ridiculous in conception. If you have a modicum of intelligence, leave it on the book stands. Under Pressure is the correct title, but only if seen from the point of view of a reader, despairingly trying to decide when to surrender and hurl it into its natural environment, the trash basket.
By Robert Pobi
Hachette UK/Hodder & Stoughton
$32.99; 448 pp