THE CHAIN, by Adrian McKinty. Mulholland, 368 pp., $28.
“The Chain” is the sort of relentless action novel that gets movie studios salivating before the final chapter is written. Maybe even before the first chapter is written. It’s a book born to be a film (and most certainly will be: Paramount Pictures acquired the screen rights for seven figures, according to author Adrian McKinty’s gleeful publisher).
Mentioning this is not to throw shade at McKinty, who has worked far too long and hard to be brushed off as an overnight sensation. The Irish-born writer has written 13 previous books, including two crime series and four stand-alone novels. But this high-concept rollercoaster – dubbed “Jaws for parents” in a striking blurb by novelist Don Winslow – is the one that will have readers talking this summer.
Plot is the driving force in “The Chain,” but the book’s premise is psychologically sound, too. Parents are heroes, McKinty tells us. Also, parents are monsters. They’ll do anything for their own kids, even if it means harming yours.
The set-up that follows is simple, if improbable. A stranger calls and tells you your child has been kidnapped. To get your child back, you must pay a token ransom and abduct someone else’s child. When the parents of the kid you abduct kidnap yet another child, yours goes free.
Are you paying attention? Good. Because if those parents don’t kidnap another child or bungle the abduction or go to the cops, your kid is dead. It’s up to you to make sure The Chain continues. If you try to deviate – sometimes even when you try to obey – an emissary from The Chain will find you and deliver a blow (literal or otherwise).
The Chain comes for Rachel, divorced mom of 13-year-old Kylie, after a bout with breast cancer that has left her emotionally depleted, but resilient. (The Chain has a tough vetting process – if you’re dithering and weak, not a can-do sort of person, you’re safe. Make a note.) When Kylie is snatched at her bus stop and a voice lays out the rules of The Chain to her mother, Rachel knows she’ll do whatever she must to get her daughter home (see: parents are monsters). “Getting Kylie back is the sun and the stars and the entire universe” to Rachel.
After rejecting the possibility of involving her ex-husband, Rachel enlists the help of her heroin-addicted, well-armed, ex-military brother-in-law Pete. They put into motion a plan to save Kylie, but eventually Rachel understands there will be no peace for any of them until she breaks The Chain.
To say that “The Chain” requires a hefty suspension of disbelief is an understatement. You must accept that negotiating the Dark Web is easy for middle class Americans, that most people can get large sums of cash swiftly, that parents put every detail of their children’s lives on social media (a concept that feels weirdly dated). For The Chain to work, its victims must have access to a quiet place to store kidnapped children in our see-something-say-something world. As for the villains, isn’t this an awful lot of work and risk and danger when they could make money more easily via credit card fraud?
McKinty gets carried away with his prose on occasion -- “The highway hums. The highway sings. The highway luminesces. It is an adder moving south” -– and sometimes his characters are conveniently forgetful. But despite this, he pulls readers into Rachel’s nightmare and gradual change of heart (see: parents are heroes). Once you surrender to it, “The Chain” turns out to be awfully hard to put down.