Written by Chris Pavone — In an expertly assembled first few chapters, Chris Pavone sets the scene nicely. The Travelers of the title is a magazine, and so much more. It’s a brand, an idea, an aspiration, an experience and, indeed, a lifestyle. You could say it’s the Grand Dame of American tourism. It’s also an agency pedalling trips, fine wines and gourmet cuisine to rich Americans.
Like all antiquated institutions, it has its quirks. Managing director Malcolm Somers has an aversion to email and sends his staff out on assignment with sealed envelopes, which are passed on to the foreign bureaux. Then there’s 30-something Will Rhodes, one of Somers’ most trusted staffers. Will lives in pursuit of perfection; the perfect article, the perfect meal, the perfect holiday experience. But his life is far from perfect. His fixer-upper in Brooklyn is a money-pit, and Will hasn’t got any Benjamins to throw into that pit because his wife Chloe quit working full-time on The Travelers when he joined. The marriage is in trouble with Will away a lot and Chloe having trouble conceiving. These are just the problems Will is aware of, because things are about to get a lot more complicated.
Pavone is an expert schemer when it comes to plotting, and shows why he’s got Edgar and Anthony awards to his name. On assignment in Argentina, Will gives in to temptation and sleeps with an Australian travel journalist called Elle Hardwick. Previously the pair had flirted in France, but Will backed out on that occasion. As soon as the sex is over and Will is lying back anticipating a second round, Elle drops a bombshell. She is in the CIA. Will has been caught in a honey trap, and either he works for her or Chloe receives a video of the two of them together. Will is to secretly photograph some of the people he meets on assignment – the rich, the influential, and those otherwise of interest to the CIA. In return he’ll receive $10 thousand a month and his secret will be safe. What choice does he have?
Malcolm Somers has his own concerns. The Travelers faces a possible corporate takeover, and some of its advertising revenue may be hard to explain to the auditors. Will, one of his best staffers, has become erratic and maybe even paranoid. Is he going to be a problem, and if so, how should Somers deal with him and keep Chloe happy? And finally, who is the stranger his wife is having an affair with, and why did this man try to steal the contents of his home computer’s hard drive?
The Travelers is one of those books where nobody, except perhaps Will, is who they seem. The first two thirds are a joy to read. Pavone’s plot and structure are excellent, letting us know just enough to follow what is going on, but keeping the bigger picture a mystery. Finding out what everybody is really up to is one of the pleasures of this book. Really, mainstream thriller writing doesn’t get any better. There is plenty of character detail too, with the author making sure he doesn’t neglect the minor characters. Not to make use of all of the exotic locations in such a book would be criminal, and Pavone takes us from steamy Argentina to frigid Iceland and many points between.
It is about two-thirds in that Pavone shows us his hand, so to speak, and the intrigue surrounding The Travelers is revealed. At this point it becomes more of an action thriller, as Will sets out on a mission to free himself and save his wife, amongst others. The change in tempo isn’t disappointing, but as with monster movies, things are never quite the same after the big reveal. Pavone is certainly adept at writing action, there’s peril, plot twists, and shorter sentences to maintain a breakneck pace. But that little extra frisson of suspense is missing, gone with the knowledge of who is doing what and why.
Given what the author has set out to do, this is unavoidable, and don’t let it stop you enjoying a mainstream thriller which is, in the main, an absolute pleasure to read.
Chris Pavone’s debut The Expats won multiple awards, and we’ve also reviewed his second novel, The Accident. The Travelers is released 8 March.
Faber & Faber
CFL Rating: 4 Stars