Saturday, April 05, 2008

THE CLEANER by Brett Battles

Preface Publishing, £6.99, ISBN 978-1848090071

Jonathan Quinn is a cleaner. The guy you never see. The guy who comes in, makes sure that you never know the truth. He’s not there when the action goes down. But he makes sure the action never happened. He’s cool. Confident. Always in control.

Until now.

Brett Battles’ debut novel is a superb example of thriller writing. And it surprises with a unique protagonist, something quite unusual in the genre. This isn’t the story of the master spy or the expert soldier, but the guy who cleans up after the work is done. The clandestine nature of Jonathan Quinn’s work makes for an instantly unusual premise even if you’re aware from the word go that this particular clean up is going to be anything but smooth.

But smooth is what Quinn likes. He’s a very buttoned up character. He’s procedure and method and control. As events spin inevitably into chaos, he is plucked up and out of his comfort zone, forced to make snap decisions and judgements. One suspects its precisely the kind of thrills his protégé signed on board for, but Quinn knows that thrills are short lived and that real danger is not something to be anticipated or savoured.

Quinn is a fascinating character in this way. Battles does an excellent job of keeping him all business and yet subtly revealing a more personal and human side to his character. More than a great deal of characters in the genre, Quinn feels flawed and human in a great many respects even if he tries to pretend that he isn’t.

Like Lee Child, Zoe Sharp and Simon Kernick, Brett Battles deals with fast prose, fast action and the kind of scenarios that wouldn’t feel out of place in the best action movies. His protagonist is morally dubious, but ultimately righteous, and his bad guys are truly bad. Of course, there are shades of grey thrown expertly into the mix, but while there is a depth to the characters here, the moral philosophising is kept to a minimum. Although Battles doesn’t shy away from the impact of violence, he rarely dwells on its nature or lingers too long on the long-term psychological impact. This is not a psycho-drama; it is pure action-adventure. A definite thriller. We are in no doubt as to who we are rooting for. And in the end, there’s a great satisfaction in seeing the good guys kick some ass.

Not that Battles makes things easy for his protagonists. There is, thank goodness, a genuine sense of danger here – one that escalates as the novel progresses. And although much of the plot becomes personal, Battles does his best to ensure it never becomes overly hokey or coincidental. A lot of this is down to solid character work and superior pacing. Very little here rings false and it’s a testament to Battles’ skill as a writer how fast the pages are turned.

As with, say, the Bond novels, much of the appeal of The Cleaner lies in its globe-trotting storyline. From the US to Vietnam to Belgium, Battles makes the most of his locations and gives the novel an epic sweep that feels incredibly filmic in its nature.

Indeed, it is clear that this is a novel based on the language of film. This is a blockbuster, no doubt about it. And it is to Battles’ credit that when the action does hot up, his smooth, clinically efficient prose is up to the challenge.

Is there a problem in that Quinn falls very neatly into the range of characters who come under the shadow of the mighty Jack Reacher juggernaut? Although Quinn is a separate and distinct creation, there is a feeling that comparisons may be made either fairly or unfairly. For this reader’s money, Quinn seems a more interesting character than Reacher, one who may perhaps have the potential to undergo a multi-book arc and perhaps adjust his attitude, perceptions and lifestyle as the series progresses rather than essentially resetting after every book. Also, Quinn feels more human than a character like Reacher ever could. By giving the man obvious flaws, making him more ordinary – just a guy doing his job – Battles grants Quinn a kind of empathy that more superheroic characters struggle with. He has the potential to be much more than a simple archetype.

The Cleaner is a brilliantly paced, expertly realised thriller. And Battles – with pitch-perfect prose and a real feel for the pulse-pounding, globe-trotting thriller – is an author who doesn’t simply show promise, but feels like he’s going to be around for a long time to come.

Russel McLean for Crime Scene Scotland, 05/04/08
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