After Nam Le’s The Boat – see my last post – I needed something a bit lighter to read. Michael Robotham wouldn’t normally qualify; his crime stories are usually intense, complex and scary, as can be seen from my earlier posts on The Suspect (2004), Lost (2005) and The Night Ferry (2007). But Bombproof (2008) was commissioned for Books Alive, which is an annual, government-funded, month-long nationwide campaign to promote books and reading. Written for a more general audience, it is nowhere near as challenging as his other work – which was just what I was looking for.
Sami MacBeth is a twenty seven year old guitarist who wants to be a rock god. But his main talent seems to be being in the wrong place at the wrong time – ‘a talent for trouble’. He’s already done three years in prison for a jewel robbery he didn’t commit. All he wants to do now is find his missing sister, Nadia, but after only three days of freedom, he’s in even worse trouble than that which landed him in goal. He shares the story with Vincent Ruiz, the now retired Detective Inspector from the earlier three books. Ruiz would like to help Sami find his sister; he has a thing about missing girls, though thinks he might be a bit ‘long in the tooth’. He also has some old scores to settle, and these might just have something to do with the trouble Sami’s in. ‘The behaviour of stupid, violent people no longer interests him. The behaviour of clever, driven, dangerous people is a different story.’
The story is quite complicated, but much less subtle than in the earlier books. It is as if Robotham has plotted out who has to know what, how they find it out, and how that drives the action forward, rather than writing a narrative that gives a sense of growing organically. Sami needs a place to hide so there has to be a character that can hide him. The baddies need someone on the inside of the police, and Ruiz just happens to lunch with that person on a regular (though infrequent) basis. Chance and coincidence play a much greater – or at least more obvious – role than in the best crime stories, including Robotham’s own. He makes up for it by fast-paced writing and the excitement of an incident-filled storyline.
Sami and Ruiz are both, in their different ways, likeable characters. Sami isn’t dumb; he just ‘has about as much common sense as a pork chop’. He’s fiercely devoted to his sister, and will go to any lengths to find her. He doesn’t really think about what he’s doing; he just reacts to circumstances. His resilience under enormous pressure is somewhat unrealistic, and he seems to get smarter – or at least more assured – as the story progresses. But this is a forgivable plot weakness – many ‘ordinary person’ main characters manage the extraordinary. Ruiz is smart, laconic and persistent, and not above using physical intimidation – which is not bad for a man of sixty-two. ‘Subtlety,’ he thinks, ‘was never one of his strengths as a detective’; he’d rather ‘rattle a cage’. And so he does. Most of the other characters are more or less stereotypes, sketched in to play their part in the story.
Even though Robotham is not writing at full stretch, I still enjoy his use of language. Written in the present tense, it has an immediacy that makes for easy reading (as no doubt Robotham intended). His view of the world is sardonic; what can go wrong will go wrong. ‘Sami isn’t just unlucky, he’s a walking jinx, a Jonah; he’s the one-legged man in an arse-kicking competition; he’s the Irishman who burnt his lips trying to blow up a bus. Forget master criminal – Sami isn’t even a minor one.’ His dialogue is also entertaining. ‘We could catch the tube,’ suggests Sami. ‘I don’t catch trains,’ replies Dessie. ‘Why not?’ ‘I just don’t.’ ‘We’re running a bit low on choices for you to be taking a personal stand.’ Dessie grunts. Sami takes it as a yes’. But this is a crime story, and Robotham never lets the reader forget that crime is essentially cruel, exploitative and violent; there is nothing gentle about his descriptions of the havoc caused by it.
This story feels a bit like Robotham just dashed it off, but it is probably fairer to say that he was consciously writing for an audience that doesn’t read much, and on this basis, I think he has succeeded very well. I was looking for a good, undemanding read, and I got one.
You can find out more about Robotham here.