Written by Chris Pavone — The Paris Diversion is the followup to Chris Pavone’s award-winning debut thriller from 2013, The Expats. In the new book, former CIA agent Kate Moore is living in Paris with her husband Dexter when the ghosts from that earlier story come in search of her.
A lot of action and a great many characters are packed into a 12-hour period this novel covers. Different chapters are told from different characters’ points of view, so it takes a while to start figuring out how the pieces fit together, which is probably not in the way you assume. Along the way, you’re treated to a granular depiction of Paris—not just monuments and streets, but the way of life.
Kate doesn’t know whether she still works for the CIA or not. She’s a one-woman operation, head of something called the Paris Substation, and has ample money to hire all the help she needs to carry out assignments, though she doesn’t know whom her orders are coming from. Dexter works from home, day-trading, and trying to come up with a get-rich-quick scheme. Their relationship would be a lot stronger (and a lot of other problems avoided) if they didn’t keep so many secrets from each other and lie about them. Neither is ever quite sure what the other is up to.
Dexter’s involved in a scheme to sell short a large hunk of shares in a company called 4Syte. It will make him a bundle as long as those shares drop in price as one of his inside information sources has predicted. Meanwhile, 4Syte’s president, Hunter Forsyth is focused on the big win he expects when he makes a major announcement that afternoon. He’s an arrogant high-flyer, who Dexter believes was “born on third base, believing he hit a triple,” such an apt description I laughed out loud.
The ominous sound of sirens pervades the book’s early chapters. It soon transpires that several bombs have been found in strategic spots around the city, and a man wearing a suicide vest has taken up a position in the plaza outside the Louvre. Beside him is a metal suitcase emitting radiation. Snipers on the Louvre’s rooftop have him in their sights in the deserted forecourt, though either the cellphone he’s holding or a remote confederate will detonate the vest, and shooting him may merely precipitate the catastrophe. The petty arguing among the various police departments regarding whether to shoot sounds exactly right, with the ironic touch that the sniper is Moroccan.
In this emergency, Forsyth’s regular Sûreté security detail rushes away, soon replaced by another set of officers and a man from the US Embassy (CIA, Forsyth guesses) who encourages him to stay put while they await the restoration of electricity, cell phone service and wi-fi, which have gone out all over the city. Forsyth balks; he has a lot of prep work before his big afternoon news conference. Badgered, the CIA man finally agrees to take him to a safe house that may have electricity and communications.
If Forsyth is unaware of what’s really going on around him, people in his corporate headquarters are increasingly worried. Not only is their CEO incommunicado, but 4Syte offices in Hong Kong and Mumbai have received bomb threats. Coincidence? Or?
Pavone’s secondary characters are strong, especially Forsyth’s assistant, Colette. She’s so coolly French, married, but the object of Hunter’s lustful imaginings. The suicide bomber is another good character, knowing he will die, but not when, and with unexpected reasons for strapping on the vest.
You hurtle through the story’s 12 hours, Pavone advising you of the time at the head of each short chapter, and you may want to stop reading occasionally to ask yourself, “What just happened?” as layers of the plot come into focus. There are a few aspects of the plot – for example, the idea that there are multiple clandestine and off-the-books spy agencies operating around the world – that may stretch credulity, or you may disagree about the sweetness of revenge, but you probably will be turning pages too fast to worry about such things.
A Long Night in Paris by Dov Alfon is another complex, but totally different, story compressed into a few hours in the City of Light.
Faber & Faber
CFL Rating: 4 Stars