If I were to give a title to Alex Finlay’s latest novel, I would not have chosen What Have We Done but rather the far more appropriate ‘What the Hell Happened?’ Part John Wick, part mystery, this adventure thriller tells the surprising story of a group of bad kids gone good and what happens when the past catches up with them.
It begins with a gun and a grave. It was justice – the only kind a group of weak teens could get against a powerful man who had the local police in his pocket. All five of them shot him so that no one person could take the blame but also so that no one was in a position to talk. It is a secret that all of them will have to take to their own graves.
Twenty-five years later, John – I mean Jenna – has retired from the mysterious High Table Corporation for whom she once worked and is a suburban step-mom. When she receives the message ordering her to assassinate someone, she is both too scared not to comply and too stunned not to just go through the motions and get herself out of this surreal situation. Until she looks through the rifle sight and realizes just who she has been asked to eliminate. Jenna deliberately misses, hoping this will warn the man she had been told to kill, and skedaddles. Then she begins the process of getting her family to safety so she can figure out just what is going on without worrying about them.
Meanwhile, Donnie is playing rock and roll on a cruise ship, drunk out of his mind, so he doesn’t have to face the failure his life has become. Once the star of a famous rock band, he’s now reduced to an unwanted extra in the group he himself helped to form. When he is fired after the show, he grabs a bottle and heads to the deck to look at the ocean. Being thrown overboard by an assailant he can’t even see seems a fitting end to the night – and his life.
It was meant to be a flash-in-the-pan show, a ‘reality’ piece to fill a gap in the network’s lineup. But The Miners, a look at life in the coal mines, turned into a surprise hit, and now Nico is stuck in West Virginia, allegedly producing the show but mostly corralling his erstwhile stars. When he gets a call from one of them asking to meet at the mine, he goes, expecting dirt on someone the guy’s got a beef with. Instead, he finds himself buried alive after a stranger sneaks in behind him and causes a cave-in.
Arty is riding high having gone from foster kid in a group home to tech billionaire. His life is seemingly perfect – until someone tries to assassinate him.
Then all four of them find out that Ben has been murdered. Is someone getting revenge for that night decades ago?
This is a dual timeline mystery where we uncover what happened twenty-five years ago that led five kids to kill someone and simultaneously unravel who is after them now. One of the problems in reviewing suspense stories is that the heart of the tale lies in the author’s ability to manipulate each puzzle piece to make us desperate to get to the next piece, and in order for each of us to have the same experience, one of us can’t tell the others what the pieces are. So I am not going to reveal much about the plot. I will say, however, that the author doesn’t take advantage of his premise to deliver a nuanced story. These five kids are far more successful than ninety percent of people and yet we don’t delve into why that is, except in the case of Donnie. They are also surprisingly unscathed by the past, again except for Donnie. They’re sketches rather than fully drawn although again, Donnie is the exception to that. This left me pretty much liking no one except – you guessed it – Donnie. Ambivalence towards the characters when you are reading a character-driven story is never a good sign.
Another detriment to my enjoyment was the complete ineptness of the villains. Four out of five of the characters survive the initial attempts on their lives, even though they’re are carried out by (alleged) professionals. I couldn’t believe – as in literally couldn’t accept – how inept the baddies are and how exceptionally lucky the heroes are.
Jenna highlights everything that is wrong with this narrative. She is constantly rolling her eyes and talking about how amateur the hits against them are and yet she falls into the would-be killers traps repeatedly. She was groomed as an assassin because of her gymnastic skills, and I struggled to buy that, too. If she had been a champion at Tae Kwon Do, Mixed Martial Arts, Judo, and/or Karate – pugilism of any kind – I could have accepted that, but gymnastics isn’t a training ground for fighting. Her reluctance to kill when the stakes are literally her own life and those of her family and friends infuriated me. I understand that she had left her previous life behind when she married, but given the danger the villains represented to her loved ones, I found her reluctance to put a permanent end to them confusing.
On the positive side, the prose is good, and the pacing is brisk. The characters are superficial, but that surface is attractive. The story is very entertaining, and that combined with the above made this a fast, easy read.
This leaves me with a conundrum. If What Have We Done was a movie, I would recommend it to fans of action-adventure films high on thrills and low on depth. There are books like that, too, and I would recommend this one to fans of those. But if you are looking for a mystery that echoes the brilliance of the author’s first two novels I would keep looking. This isn’t it.
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