Newest Review: ... would become the hallmarks of his work are in place from the start. You've got the slightly disaffected male protagonist looking for an esc... more
A Fateful Fling
The Dead Heart - Douglas Kennedy
Member Name: Puggers
The Dead Heart - Douglas Kennedy
Advantages: Tense and thrilling, well-characterised.
Disadvantages: Lacks the impact of later novels.
I can empathise with the map-gazing protagonist of this novel - and we happen to share a name, too. He pores over an atlas, looking for escape and adventure, and strikes upon the wild heart of Australia as the place to do this, an expanse of nothing as far as the cartographers are concerned, ripe to disappear into for a while. There's something wonderfully seductive about a map, where everything only exists in suggestion and approximation; nothing viewed from this distance can really resemble the reality on the ground, so the imagination tends to fill in the abstract and undefined.
As author Douglas Kennedy's first novel (coming after a number of travel books), there's a sense of the writer honing his craft about this story, but what would become the hallmarks of his work are in place from the start. You've got the slightly disaffected male protagonist looking for an escape from his life for one reason or another, the stranger in a strange land and the femme fatale upon whom the story turns.
Kennedy's novels tend to walk a highwire between literary fiction and full-blown thriller; the plot is skilfully-crafted and the tension racketed upon scene on scene, but it's all immersed in a sense of place that doesn't come through in your average thriller. Partly because the protagonists tend to be such discontented wanderers, the location almost becomes a character in itself, and is invariably a crucial part of the story.
This is true here, but to a lesser extent than in his later books - although maybe this is because of the nature of the place. Outback Australia's limitless spaces are not as easy to characterise as the intimate Paris in The Woman in the Fifth or Stasi-era Berlin in The Moment, but they certainly still play a part here.
The protagonist Nick arrives in Australia with a loose sense of purpose and with several weeks to fill, buys a cheap camper van and sets off from Darwin. Sooner or later, boy meets girl, and what at first glance looks like a holiday romance that might be just the cure for his ennui leads to an altogether darker affair from which there may be no escape.
Kennedy knows how to write memorable characters, and while those in the Dead Heart aren't his most enduring, they do their jobs well here, and you're pulled into the spiralling action and tension of the story with them. There isn't a great deal of scene-setting here, and little-to-no background on Nick, so the book pretty much hits the ground running and accelerates from there.
There's a moment in all the author's books when it looks like the central character has got themselves into a hole without hope of escape - here that hole is particularly sizeable and stretches for the greater part of the novel. There's a sense of perpetual peril and threat, and yet there's still time to develop character and build in a little background to the main machinations of the story.
For my money, Douglas Kennedy's books get better and better, so in theory this should be a fairly modest affair to kick things off. Actually, it's a great little thriller - it lacks the characters, atmosphere or enduring punch to compare to his later novels, but it's a great place to start enjoying his compelling storytelling.
Summary: A great place to start.