The Expats, by Chris Pavone, is undoubtedly the most compelling first novel I’ve read in a long time. Since the blurb says that the author has been a book editor for twenty years and his list of people to acknowledge includes such luminaries as Molly Stern, Angus Cargill and Stephen Page, I conclude that he had a bit of a head start over most new fiction writers, but I wouldn’t want to hint, even for a moment, that the author of this brilliant book does not deserve heaped praise.
The overall plot is a little reminiscent of that of Mr. and Mrs. Smith – and, indeed, I could imagine Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt playing the lead roles if the novel were ever made into a film. Like the Stieg Larsson novels, it is also about an expert hacker. Pavone is more subtle than Larsson when he explores the moral issues connected with the murky worlds of undercover agents and hackers – the female protagonist, Kate Moore, especially ponders whether an illegal or dishonest action can be justified in order to promote a greater good, and does not find reassuring answers.
The characters of Kate and her husband, Dexter Moore, are especially well-drawn and the portrayal of the two ‘villains’, Bill and Julia, is very successful, because for most of the book the extent and nature of their villainy is difficult to gauge; in fact, at one stage, we are made to think that they might be good guys after all, though the reader’s gut instinct is not to trust this possibility. I also love the character of the Smiley-like Hayden, who has a rich cameo part.
The author’s descriptions of various European settings – Paris, the Alps, Amsterdam and, above all, Luxembourg – are compelling. Twists and turns of plot continue until almost the last page, but never seem far-fetched. If I have a very minor complaint, it is that Kate’s sudden access of sentimentality at the end is unconvincing.
One small sadness is that, although I should like to see more of Kate in future novels, the ending makes this unlikely (though not impossible). Whatever Chris Pavone’s plans for his next book, I await it with impatience.
Footnote: Tomorrow I am going to a conference (day-job!) and shall be away for five days. I shall continue with the blog-posts, however. Regular readers of the blog may remember that one of the early posts was about how I trained for In the Family by writing a series of short stories, at Chris Hamilton-Emery’s suggestion. There are ten stories altogether. I’ve been revising them recently and may try to publish them. For each of the next five days, I intend to post on the blog the opening paragraphs of the first five. If you’d like to make any comments, they’d be extremely welcome.