The bungling hero may stretch your patience but the cliffhangers will keep you reading until the end… in one sitting
If ever there was a perfect victim for a femme fatale to sink her claws into, it is George Foss, the inept protagonist of Peter Swanson's Larsson-esquely titled debut, The Girl With a Clock for a Heart. George is approaching 40, bored, and feels "as though his world had been slowly drained of all its colours". He has spent the 20 years since his college sweetheart disappeared thinking, mistakenly, that he sees her everywhere. Then, one August night in Boston, there she really is.
She's in danger; she needs his help. Will George deliver a huge stash of banknotes to the man she stole them from, and say sorry from her while he's at it? Of course he will. Will he do this despite being punched in the kidneys by someone who is hunting her, and despite knowing she is very far from who she says she is? Of course he will.
She's very attractive, after all, and was his first love. Swanson's thriller weaves together two timelines: George at college, meeting the girl he knew then as Audrey, falling for her, then grieving when he learns she's killed herself over the Christmas holidays. There's a wonderful scene when he visits her parents, and realises the picture they have of their Audrey isn't his. His Audrey – Liana Decter – is still alive, and may have done some terrible things to escape her real past.
Then there's George in the present, spotting Liana in his local bar, being drawn into her femme fatale world of guns and tranquilliser darts, false identities and diamond robberies.
Swanson has set out to create a hero who is just an average guy thrown into a world of crime he has no idea how to handle. Fair enough. But George is so terribly clueless! Perhaps he hasn't read enough thrillers, and he should be forgiven for being in thrall to Liana, but he makes such silly mistakes. He unnecessarily breaks into a deserted house which is almost certainly linked to the Bad Goings On. He locks sliding glass doors to protect himself from a baddie with a gun. He forgets his mobile when heading into danger.
And he keeps going to sleep! He's even tempted to nod off after the most dramatic scene in the book. A reader is hard pressed not to shout "yes George" when the character wonders "if the limited banks of his memory were entirely filled with details of Liana, all used up on the first semester of college, those 16 heady weeks".
Yet i'ts hard not to warm to this book – and very hard not to read it in one sitting. Of course it's faintly preposterous – at one point there is even a steak knife concealed in a pair of knickers – but it's also lots of fun. Swanson's writing is clean and measured, he throws in a ton of cliff-hangers, and he plays out his stolen identity concept – impossible in the age of Facebook, but how intriguing to remember how it wouldn't have been, 20 years ago – to thrilling, chilling effect.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Quinn Dombrowski