Some time ago, I read Allan Folsom's first book, The Day After Tomorrow, and quite enjoyed it. What I remember most is that it was a readable, fun, but fairly complex novel. Despite its daunting 860 page size, I was hoping for something similar from The Exile.
It follows the career of John Barron, a policeman newly appointed to an elite Los Angeles police squad which hides a dark secret. It begins with a hunt for a killer before widening out into a larger arena, involving some of the most powerful families in Europe and the sovereignty of an entire nation. Whilst trying to unravel this mystery Barron also finds himself hunted by his former colleagues.
To say that The Exile is ambitious in scope would be a massive understatement. It spans two continents, multiple countries and its labyrinthine plot covers so many strands it's difficult to keep track of them all. In some books, complexity can add to the appeal. It's The Exile's downfall. The plot is just too involved to be involving. The sheer amount of detail holds back the book and damages its pacing. Folsom's mistake is in trying to build character and atmosphere through lengthy, verbose descriptions of people, locations and procedures; trying to report the thoughts and motivations of the key characters. It takes a great deal of time for anything to happen in this book and that seriously affects the enjoyment levels.
Essentially, the plot is a race against time, a desperate battle to save Barron's own life and stop events from spinning out of control. As such, it demands a fast-paced, adrenalin fuelled rush of a narrative which whisks the reader from place to place, getting them so caught up in events that they can't wait to turn the page. All the extraneous detail severely dents restricts this possibility to such a point that the intrigue Folsom is aiming for never catches the imagination.
Because the book rambles on and on, there are no real surprises. Folsom seems to think that he makes startling revelations at times, as if the reader is going to be stunned by his clever plot twists. In fact, most of these plot twists are highly obvious and you have had so long to think about them that you will have them worked out way in advance of the actual revelation. You'll find yourself exasperated that the characters are so stupid that they can't see blindingly obvious connections and take over 100 pages for the penny to finally drop.
Another problem with the plot is that it is so preposterous. It deals with attitudes, people and places that most of us will never encounter. This makes it even more difficult to care about its outcome. This, combined with the bloated word count severely dents the amount of enjoyment to be had. It's not necessarily that the plot is weak; it's just that it's artificially drawn out to epic proportions. Of the 866 pages in the paperback edition, I would estimate that there is probably around 250-300 pages of meaningful content. Had Folsom or his editors turned in a book around that length, it might just have worked as a silly, but fast paced thriller. At this length, it's not a thriller, it's a snoozer.
The characters don't help. Most are mere ciphers, simply there to provide a convenient way to drive the plot along, whilst some of the more fleshed out characters are killed off. This is supposed to provide some emotional impact, but it doesn't work this way: it just comes across as yet another convoluted twist in the overly-complex plot.
The main character, John Barron, is unremittingly bland. He's supposed to be a dedicated family man and highly principled, intelligent officer. Most of the time, he just comes across as a bit of an idiot. Barron ticks every cliché in the book: troubled past, troubled present, loyal friends who end up in trouble because of his actions and so on. This lends an air of crushing predictability to the character and his story arc. There's no spark of originality here, nothing that you can't read in hundreds of other books in the police thriller genre.
It comes to something when the main bad guy is actually far more interesting and entertaining than the supposed hero. Enter Raymond Oliver Thorne - a single-minded assassin hell-bent on achieving his goal, and who doesn't care who dies in the process. Raymond comes across as cool and collected. He's such a great character, you actually start rooting for him, hoping that he will kill Barron, achieve his goal and the book can end! When a book becomes so imbalanced that the bad guy unintentionally takes centre stage, you know it's in trouble.
Folsom also resorts to some very lazy stereotypes. Parts of his book are (apparently) set in France and England. Whilst in some respects, he's clearly done a great deal of research (using real streets and places, for example) he rather spoils this by use of inaccurate generalizations. Did you know, for example, that all British people take afternoon tea? Or that it rains constantly in Manchester from September to April. OK, I know this is sometimes the perception of Manchester, but it's untrue and perpetuates lazy myths.
In case you haven't gathered by now, this book was a huge disappointment. I opened it hoping for a complex, yet fast paced thriller. What I got was an over-long, dull book which failed to grab my attention in any meaningful sense. Were I not one of those pig-headed people who is determined to finish a book once I've started it, I doubt I would have got beyond page 200.
Time Warner Books, 2004
ISBN: 0 7515 2530 8
Available new from Amazon for £5.49 or used from 1p (and that's still overpriced!)
© Copyright SWSt 2009