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Adam Kindred, a British climatologist who's worked in the USA for some years, comes back to his home country for a job interview. Afterwards he has lunch and a man in the restaurant strikes up a conversation with him. When he leaves, Adam notices that he's forgotten a folder. He finds the name Philip Wang on it and an address and decides to return it. When he gets to Wang's apartment, however, he finds him lying on his bed with a bread knife sticking out of his side. Wang's last rasped words are that Adam pull the knife out which he does, thus leaving his fingerprints on it and blood on his suit. When he gets back to his hotel, he encounters Wang's killer there who saw him in the apartment and who wants to do him in, too, just to be on the safe side.
Thus endeth Adam's life as he has known it for forty-something years. His only chance of survival is to run as fast as he can, drop out of society and go underground. From the little money he's got in his wallet, he buys a sleeping bag and a cooker, then hides in a piece of rough ground on the Embankment. Soon he finds out that not only Wang's killer is after him but also the firm Wang worked for.
So Ordinary Thunderstorms is a thriller? The division of literature into genres may seem picky. Why should an author be forced to stay within the boundaries of a genre, follow rules that have been established over time? Of course, an author can write any way they want, but like it or not, the rules exist and if an author transcends or disregards them, they should create something striking which justifies the process. A thriller opens with a crime and moves on towards its solution, usually at a fast pace. Protagonists, settings, background info, sub plots make a thriller more or less readable according to the skills of the author, but they should always serve the main idea and never take on a life of their own.
Adam Kindred is certainly an original character. I can't remember ever reading about a climatologist specialised in influencing the behaviour of clouds wrongly accused of murder. His reduction to the bare essentials, a place to sleep and some edible grub, while trying to save his hide and at the same time trying to understand what's going on at all fascinate the reader from the start. Yet, his being a climatologist is only interesting, it constitutes nothing to the cause, he could be a specialist in dozens of other professions. What is important is only that he's smart and resourceful. At least William Boyd doesn't delve too deep in the field he's chosen as Ian McEwan tends to do. If he decided to make a climatologist his protagonist, you'd be able to run a Weather Channel after finishing the book.
It turns out that Philip Wang was an immunologist working on a drug against asthma, a billion dollar business for the pharma industry should it work. Why did he have to die? This could be the topic of another novel, the elaborate description of the workings of the pharma business distracts from the thriller we were led to believe we'd read.
Adam's underground life as one of about 200 000 missing people living in the UK also takes on a life of its own, we're in a picaresque novel here, one exotic adventure follows the other , one more or less - it wouldn't matter. We get to know a semiliterate black prostitute as well as a crack pot religious sect, illegal immigrants and their tricks to become legal, and an English paedophile. The psychotic hitman who's after Adam also gets his share of attention as does an attractive police woman and her hippie father living on a house boat on the Thames. The river is also a character in the novel, its history, life on it and on its banks. The pace here is leisurely at times which is a no-no for thrillers.
Whereas Ian McEwan suffers from over-information, William Boyd suffers from over-imagination. He's developed a special kind of padding, not of the kind 'On the right side of the door was a wardrobe and underneath the window stood a sofa with two cushions', but he can't introduce a character without giving them a history. He'd burst if he didn't. Why, oh why, do we have to know that one of the homeless men Adam meets suffers from a rare skin disease? We have to endure its detailed description and then also learn that his ex-father-in-law suffered from the same disease. And would you believe it, we also learn that the killer's sister's dog he cares for has digestive problems?! Good God! And so 403 pages in small print are filled. The book would gain immensely in my opinion if at least 50 were deleted.
I imagine travelling with Boyd on the tube and him giving a detailed CV of each fellow passenger on the spur of the moment. It's enjoyable to listen to him because he's a wonderful story teller and he can give each character a distinct voice, but in the end the reader asks themselves, "Now what kind of book have I read at all?" Too much of a good thing is only too much, but not a good thing.
If you just want a good read on a high intellectual level, don't care about genres too much, love thick books and don't mind diversions and subdiversions, read Ordinary Thunderstorms, you won't regret it.