Apparently, Clare Curzon has been writing for many years and has published more than 40 books, but "Off Track" was the first time I had come across her work. Unfortunately, the experience hasn't really encouraged me to read any of her other books.
Lee Barber is a train driver who has plans until one night he overshoots a station and is reported by a passenger. A few nights later, Lee comes across the man he believes reported him and, his mind muddled by drink, attacks him. It soon transpires, however, that the man he has attacked was instead a disgruntled biological scientist, who is on his way to meet a newspaper reporter to tell the world what he's really been working on.
This reporter is the partner of a Thames Valley police detective, who is called in to investigate the report of the missing man. They are also involved when the daughter of the Barber family is snatched, possibly by people looking to get their hands on his research, one of whom has ended up dead after breaking into the Barber home. Suspicion falls on this stranger in their house, as for their own reasons, neither wants to tell the truth about how they met.
The plot is very much like the game "Six Degrees of Separation", in that everything and everyone is linked to everything else in some way. It makes things rather confusing and just a little too coincidental for my taste. I accept that some suspension of disbelief is required whenever you're reading fiction, but this seems to require a little too much of it. It's made worse by being set in real towns and there are references to actual events to help act as a comparison and set a time frame.
Many of the individual plot points share this lack of realism as well. Lee's actions in this first instance and his reaction afterwards don't seem like human nature. His wife's suspicion is more realistic, but her acceptance of things as events concerning her children distract her spoils this effect. The nosey neighbour is a nice touch, as are the family members on different sides of a legal argument, but these aren't enough to offset events which seem just one step short of being ridiculous, especially all thrown in together.
You would think that with so much going on that this would be a swift moving thriller, but it doesn't work out that way. Admittedly, it is an easy read and the pages pass very quickly, although some of this may be down to the quite large print as much as the pace of events. For all that was going on, it was never an addictive read and I never managed to lose myself in events.
Part of this may have been because I never settled with the lack of reality, but with so much going on in such a short space of time, it didn't leave a lot of room for character building. There was little that made any of the more innocent characters seem better than anyone else and the less savoury character flaws that made the bad characters the worst of them were largely glossed over which didn't make them seem quite so bad. There was also a distinct lack of emotion for the most part, so it was tough to sympathise with characters who didn't seem to feel the impact of what was going on.
For all the connection between characters, the plot didn't seem quite so closely connected; seeming to appear as a random set of events that were all forced to link together somehow. The abduction of the Barber's daughter didn't initially seem to have any point to it until a little later on and introduced new characters who also didn't seem linked into the plot and even the nosy neighbour, for all his involvement early on, just seemed in the end to be a way to advance the later investigation and vanished soon afterwards. Even the ending kept up this feeling, as it seemed to get to a point and then stop, as if Curzon had lost interest and was tying things up in a rush.
Admittedly, my opinion here may have been coloured by having read the latest Mark Billingham directly before I read "Off Track". Billingham writes so realistically that I could have been expecting a little too much from Clare Curzon. This isn't a bad book as it's readable enough without ever being compelling and it's simply written which makes it an untaxing read if you can look past the lack of reality. If like me, however, you prefer and are used to something a little more gripping, it does suffer greatly by comparison and really only worth a look if you can find it cheaply, such as the 99 pence it's been seen for on eBay. Apart from that, the cheapest price I have seen "Off Track" going for is £10.70 in the Amazon Marketplace and I'm afraid it simply isn't worth that much.
This is a slightly amended version of a review previously published under my name at www.thebookbag.co.uk