Crime Scene: VIV RONNEBECK The Ignition Effect. Reviewed by Stephanie Smith
A leading scientist with the US National Ignition Facility, Dr David Anderson, has gone missing and a piece of technology the size of a thumbnail has been stolen. The Facility is a top-secret site for the study of nuclear fusion, the holy grail of cheap, clean nuclear energy, and has developed a device that could make fusion energy a reality.
CIA operative Megan Finch is recalled from sick leave to lead the hunt. The Agency thinks multi-billionaire Moroccan businessman Maliki Mernissi has the scientist and the fusion device. Mernissi inherited his father’s construction business, but, as Megan’s boss puts it:
‘… we believe gray-market arms trading is the real source of his wealth. He’s also suspected to be one of the invisible puppet-masters behind a network of Islamist terrorist cells in North Africa.’
From New York, Megan’s search leads her to Marrakech, where the local MI6 man, Tom Barnes, is not happy about Megan trampling all over his local network, There she befriends the fiancée of a Russian tycoon who may hold the key to uncovering Mernissi.
The Ignition Effect takes us from wealthy Manhattan to the souks of Marrakech and the Moroccan west coast in a roller-coaster ride to an uncertain, dramatic and action-packed finish. The writing is pared back, keeping the action up-front and fuelling the pace. The chase across time zones is tense and absorbing from the start, when we learn that Megan has only 12 days to complete her mission. And although weapons are, naturally, part of this world of the spy, Megan’s ability to think while in tight corners and take calculated risks brings in elements of the psychological thriller to provide depth of character and unwritten layers for what is otherwise intended as an easy read.
This type of thriller riffs on the often secretive worlds of geopolitics and international relations, where the characters walk through a moral minefield. Readers need to empathise with the protagonist and feel there is some solidity to those on the side of right, despite the grey areas and questionable morality; whether the end can ever justify the means is an important question in this context, and The Ignition Effect leaves space for the reader to think through the tough decisions Megan has to make.
While the fast, international-travel pace set by the author is appreciated, a stronger sense of place (not as counter-intuitive as it sounds) and a little more interaction to give us insights into the main characters could give the story a more solid grounding, although the fractious relationship between Megan and Tom does go some way to providing this. Their relationship is the human heart of the story, providing an underlying sense of warmth and humour, and also, unbeknownst to Tom, eventually helping Megan reassess and reset her life.
Val McDermid teased out some of the differences between crime and thriller novels in an online Guardian article earlier in 2015, writing:
The current preoccupations of the crime novel, the roman noir, the krimi, lean to the left … It often gives a voice to characters who are not comfortably established in the world – immigrants, sex workers, the poor, the old … The thriller, on the other hand, tends towards the conservative, probably because the threat implicit in the thriller is the world turned upside down, the idea of being stripped of what matters to you.
But the best thrillers can also be subversive of the status quo, while retaining those familiar, conservative conventions and Megan has the beginnings of a character who will challenge her own assumptions, and ours, rather than exhibit that sense of entitlement and self-righteousness that can, in my opinion (The Good Wife, anyone?), ruin an otherwise perfectly good thriller.
First-time novels are often imperfect, but they can have a wonderful energy and exuberance in the writing. All this is evident in Viv Ronnebeck’s debut, and I very much look forward to reading more of Megan Finch as she and the author journey the world together.
Viv Ronnebeck The Ignition Effect Sidebar Books 2015 PB 308pp $18.75 ebook $3.56
Stephanie Smith is a freelance editor, proofreader and manuscript assessor based in Hobart.
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