Written by Brad Parks — Read the opening lines of this contemporary stand-alone thriller by American author Brad Parks and you pretty much have to keep going:
“Their first move against us was so small, such an infinitesimal blip against the blaring background noise of life, I didn’t register it as anything significant.
“It came in the form of a text from my wife, Alison, and it arrived on my phone at 3:28 one Wednesday afternoon:
“‘Hey sorry forgot to tell you kids have dr appt this pm. Picking them up soon'”
In so few words, the deep anxiety all parents share for the safety of their children comes bubbling up. You can just anticipate the next shattering revelations, and from there, the plot follows multiple tracks: part legal thriller, part financial thriller, and a big part psychological thriller as a family confronts the most horrifying challenge imaginable.
Most of the book is told from the first-person point of view of Judge Scott Sampson, a judge for the US Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, sitting in Norfolk. He, his wife, and six-year-old twins Sam and Emma live on the York River in rural Gloucester County. As Sampson describes it, “…many steps off the beaten path.”
A few short chapters are presented in third person. These deal directly with the actions of the kidnappers and make it clear they are directed by others, identity unknown, and larger forces are at work. But why?
The criminals’ goal, it first seems, is to blackmail Sampson into throwing his verdict on a case involving a lowlife drug dealer blamed for the death of a young man. At first the instructions to the judge are to let the defendant rot in jail, but at the last minute, the order is changed to: “Let him walk.” One instruction the kidnappers are consistent about is, of course, the source of the book’s title, “Say nothing.”
The judge is nonplussed at having to let a clearly guilty defendant go free. However, the switch in instructions is meant not to repopulate Virginia with n’er-do-wells, but to demonstrate the kidnappers’ power. Moments after he pronounces the sentence they have demanded – to the consternation of the court – Sam is set free outside the courthouse and brought into Sampson’s courtroom by a bailiff.
This was merely a test. It soon becomes clear that the criminals have their sights on a much bigger, more consequential case – a patent dispute involving a multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical product. And they still have Emma. To accede to their demands, Sampson must throw away his professional integrity and, as the story proceeds, many other principles and relationships. Though he does so without question, it isn’t without an enormous sense of loss. Complying with the kidnappers without drawing attention to himself is one source of tension, another comes when he begins to get an idea of who might be behind the kidnapping.
Parks believably portrays the dynamic between the parents, showing all the anger and sadness and second-guessing and mutual doubts such a high-stress situation can generate. Alison’s mother, two sisters, and their families live close by and, despite the kidnappers’ admonition, it is impossible to keep from them the fact of and reason for Emma’s absence. The family wants to help. That could be risky. Yet, their availability for overnights and night patrol of the Sampsons’ remote property, and especially their moral support, give the couple one solid thing to hang onto as events sweep on.
The author does an especially good job describing the courtroom action and the interactions in the judge’s chambers, as well as various relationships, including those between the judge and his clerk and his former boss, a convivial US Senator, whose good humour can’t penetrate Sampson’s anxious gloom.
Although you probably glimpse the puppeteer’s purpose and have a pretty good idea who is manipulating Judge Sampson’s strings well before the end, there are surprises in store. There’s also a too-tidy and unnecessary plot device at the end that obfuscates the significance of one of the principal characters’ actions. Those are minor quibbles for a book whose writing is, on the whole, deft and a pleasure to read.
Parks is an award-winning US writer whom followers of Crime Fiction Lover will enjoy getting to know. Many of his books, including the series featuring Newark Star-Ledger crime reporter Carter Ross, demonstrate a wicked sense of humour. Say Nothing shows he also can grab hold of your heart and keep squeezing.
Say Nothing comes out 2 March. For more fictional kidnappings, click here.
Faber & Faber
CFL Rating: 5 Stars