|ALTAR OF BONES
Simon & Schuster (www.simonandschuster.co.uk)
Thrillers and I have had something of a rocky relationship this year, going from one extreme (The Obelisk) to the other (Sanctus). Philip Carter’s Altar of Bones, I’ll say right at the outset, comes somewhere close to the Sanctus end of the spectrum. Carter is, according to the publicity material that comes with the book, the pseudonym of an international bestselling author. My natural curiosity, and five minutes online, was enough to reveal said author’s identity, and enough to make me dubious from the outset. While I won’t name her (go on, do your own digging if you’re that interested), I will say that she is an international bestselling author of romance novels (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s about as far from the fast-paced thriller genre as it’s possible to get).
Altar of Bones opens in a prison camp in Siberia in 1937. Lena Orlova, a nurse in the prison’s infirmary, affects a daring escape with her lover, one of the camp’s prisoners, and finds she has led them into the middle of a massive snowstorm which almost kills the man. She takes him to a cave and feeds him from the altar of bones, of which she is the Keeper, and quickly discovers his treachery.
The scene shifts to “Eighteen Months Ago”, and we find ourselves at the bedside of the dying Mike O’Malley. After revealing a dark secret, he urges his son Dom to find his brother, and together find the video tape that has kept him – and them – alive for the past forty years. Days later, Dom is also dead and his brother, Ry, is running for his life.
“Present day”, and we meet Zoe Dmitroff, a young lawyer who specialises in helping abused women. When an old woman is murdered in Golden Gate Park, the police turn up on Zoe’s doorstep. The old woman was Zoe’s grandmother, and she has died leaving the secret of the altar bones – along with the title of Keeper – to Zoe. Joining forces with Ry, she attempts to find out more about the secrets her grandmother died trying to protect, and ends up running for her life across Europe, towards the barren Siberian wastes.
Altar of Bones follows a set formula in thrillers of this type: on the one hand we have a group of people with a secret that must be protected at all costs. On the other, we have the group of people who know the secret exists, but not what it is or where to find it. Add in a few puzzles that a sharp-eyed reader may be able to solve before the characters (I’ll be honest, and say that this reader could not), and a handful of twists and turns and the formula is complete. Despite that, though, this isn’t exactly predictable.
As Zoe and Ry begin to dig into the mystery surrounding their respective families, we discover that they’re in danger from more than one set of hunters. Sure, the identity of “the big kill” is telegraphed long before the actual reveal, but that’s a minor quibble in such an intricate and involved plot. The characters and their respective histories are well fleshed out, quite possibly as a consequence of the scope (time-wise) of the novel. And Carter provides us with one of those bad guys who seems to take on a life of their own and stick in the readers memory, in the shapely form of Yasmine Poole – a truly evil piece of work, if ever I met one.
The novel suffers from some of the same issues that plague any “first novel”, and I’m guessing in this case they’re because of a writer who has decide to write well outside of her comfort zone (for which she should be applauded): the car chase through rush hour Paris traffic in which a car can keep up with a motorcycle; the comedy “car chase through a wedding cake” scene; and, perhaps most annoyingly, the author’s inability to call a car a car: you’ll find plenty of “Beamers” and “Mercs” in this novel, but there’s hardly a “car” in sight (which gets a bit old after not one but two Beamer-chases spanning multiple pages and, indeed, chapters). There is also plenty of evidence of the author’s previous life: long, meaningful glances and deep sighs, the sexual tension between the two protagonists laid on with a trowel. Any maybe “Carter” is conscious of her long-standing audience, so there’s nothing wrong with trying to lure some of them gently into this new creation.
In all, it’s a successful foray into the genre, and a worthwhile read for people who like their thrillers fast, smart and sexy. Without wishing to belittle it, or consign it to mediocrity, I’d call it the perfect airport novel, a great beach read. And perhaps the publisher thought so too, considering the timing of it’s release. But rest assured: it’s a chunky piece of fiction. No two-page chapters here. No movie written in novel form with a few extra words here and there to flesh out the action-and-dialogue skeleton. Philip Carter is the real deal and I think we can expect to hear more from him – or, indeed, her – in the near future.