A race against time, with the clock going backwards!
IT is a common cliche: saying that someone does something so well, he could do it backwards.
In his latest novel, The October List, however, American author Jeffrey Deaver does just that. His tightly plotted thriller begins with the climax in its final chapter, and moves in reverse to where things began.
A striking way of telling a story, to be sure. But what is most striking about Deaver’s novel is that he actually pulls it off!
Deaver’s name will probably be familiar to thriller fans: he is, after all, the creator of beloved detectives Lincoln Rhyme and Kathryn Dance. His works include The Devil’s Teardrop, The Broken Window and Carte Blanche, as well as The Bone Collector, which was made into a film in 1999 starring Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie.
Deaver has been awarded the Steel Dagger and Short Story Dagger from the British Crime Writers’ Association as well as the Nero Wolfe Award, and he is a three-time recipient of the Ellery Queen Reader’s Award for Best Short Story of the Year.
The October List tells the tale of Gabriela, a single mother whose daughter has been kidnapped. Her kidnappers, led by the sinister Joseph, demand she pay them half a million dollars as well as find a mysterious document known as the “October List”. On her side, however, is the dashing Daniel Reardon, a rough-and-ready action hero type who will do all he can to help.
The novel opens with Gabriela and Daniel facing the kidnappers with a gun, and moves backwards to the trigger point of these events. Twists and turns are aplenty: literally everybody in this story is not what they seem, with all of them possessing secrets of their own.
The October List’s unusual format will no doubt draw comparisons to other stories with fractured timelines, such as Christopher Nolan’s movie, Memento, or Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. In his Foreword, however, Deaver reveals that the main inspiration for his book was, surprisingly, a Broadway musical: Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Go Along, which also moves in reverse.
Let us address the elephant in the room: the novel’s unusual format is very frustrating in the start. Having to constantly remind yourself that Chapter 2 happens BEFORE Chapter 1 can be quite a chore, and may cause readers with poor concentration to give up entirely.
Once you are accustomed to reverse gear, however, Deaver’s novel makes for a refreshing and satisfying read. The October List is very well-plotted, and would probably be a decent tale even without its unique format. The story’s characters are interesting: while many of them seem like stock characters in the beginning, it quickly becomes clear that this is not the case.
Deaver uses backward storytelling very effectively, even managing to create humour with it. Throughout the entire book, people refer to Reardon as looking like “that actor”: however, it is not until Chapter 1 that we discover who it is!
This unusual style, however, is not without its flaws. For example, a lot of exposition is used to keep the reader updated, which can feel tiresome at times. Backwards storytelling also means it is difficult for The October List to build momentum: instead, Deaver builds suspense by throwing his readers headlong into the plot, and letting them discover things by themselves. One chapter has a mild mannered character recall an act of killing: what exactly happened? Another chapter has Gabriela and Reardon finding the October List. But how did they get there?
Characters are interesting, although it is difficult to really feel connected to them. Kepler and Surani, the two incompetent detectives attached to the case, are fun to read about, but the most fascinating character by a long shot is the mysterious Joseph, who seems capable of doing anything to achieve his goals.
Things are also wrapped together a bit too nicely at the end (or should we say the beginning?) as all plot threads are resolved in a long expository conversation by the main characters. A little more ambiguity would have been nice: The October List goes so out of its way to explain everyone’s fate that it can feel a little contrived.
Those minor nit picks aside, however, you will probably be very entertained by Deaver’s latest novel. Deaver is called “the master of the plot twist” for good reason: some of The October List’s shock developments will definitely keep you on tenterhooks.
Overall, The October List feels like a bit of a gimmick; to its credit, though, it is a very well-executed one. A gripping read, once you get used to the unusual format.