Claymore Straker is a man on the edge. A civilian in a dangerous land at a dangerous time. Kidnapped, held at gunpoint and lead into the depths of Yemen to be given an ultimatum by a man believed to be behind a number of terrorist acts including one which resulted in the death of Straker’s colleague. The tension is palpable and it’s only a matter of time before the inevitable eruption as Straker makes his break…
Before the old man could react, Clay bought his left knee up hard, smashing the old guy’s pelvis. The Arab’s mouth opened, the first note of a groan hanging in space, truncated an instant later as Clay’s right fist smashed into his face. Clay felt the key go in, the give as a membrane flexed, heard the slight pop as it broke, then the sucking sound as he pulled back his fist, the key with it.
This is the start of The Abrupt Physics of Dying by Paul E Hardisty. It’s also the point at which you realise you haven’t put this book down for four chapters and probably won’t until you’ve reached the last page.
Having worked around the world for 25 years as an engineer, hydrologist and environmental scientist, Hardisty survived a bomb blast in a cafe in Sana’a and was one of the last Westerners out of Yemen before the outbreak of the 1994 civil war. This should come as no surprise having read Abrupt Physics… as Hardisty details Yemen, the political climate and the science with an authority that’s never questionable and with a delivery that’s polished enough to make you wonder whether he hasn’t secretly been publishing thrillers under a different name for years.
Clay Straker is trying to forget a violent past, working as a contractor for an oil company as it seeks to expand it’s grip and presence in Yemen. His job is simple – complete the environmental surveys in a manner that gets approval for Petro-Tex and pay off any locals that need their palms greasing to remain calm. Until he’s kidnapped, of course.
Held at gunpoint and with his friend / driver taken as hostage by a terrorist organsiation, Clay is tasked with finding out what’s causing a widespread illness among the local children.
Of course we know it’s got to be something to do with the oil company but the hows and whys lead us into a world of political and corporate corruption and greed, violence and conspiracy – all set in a country on the verge of being torn apart by terrorism and civil war.
As events unravel the plot is dotted with twists and people with questionable allegiances that will leave you guessing until the end all the while rooted in strong, compelling characters and attention to culture – with dialogue liberally sprinkled with local and Afrikaans phrases to add further to the sense of immersion.
Everything you look for in a good thriller is here in abundance: a brooding hero with a troubled past, faraway locations, shady characters with even shadier motives, a love-interest, taught dialogue, corporate and moral deceit, the underdog risking it all with potentially disastrous ramifications, plot twists and counter twists and, of course, a bit of action.
The violence comes hard, fast and often. Straker takes so many and so severe a beating at times it’s hard not to wince while reading and wonder just how much one man can take. However, unlike so many thrillers which rely purely on such violence and action, The Abrupt Physics of Dying is driven instead by a compelling plot and well-crafted story telling, with near-poetic descriptions in some of the most unlikely of places:
A tendril of blood trickled from the dead soldier’s neck, a thread unravelling, scrawling a strange calligraphy onto the sand.
That being said, I do think it could find itself with an honourable mention in the Literary Review’s Bad Sex In Fiction Awards for the line “She was as slick as a tidal flat in a flood tide”.
This isn’t a no-brain, thirst-for revenge type thriller. At the heart of The Abrupt Physics of Dying lies an exploration of just how far corporate greed will go in its neglect of morals. As Clay questions his own morals and values its hard not to do the same. The atrocities and body count not celebrated but lamented and the concern for the damage being wrought on the local population reads as genuine.
So: Thriller? Thriller with a conscience? Eco-thriller? Geo-political thriller? How about bloody good book? It’s all of these.
In his first book Hardisty has created a thriller as assured, gripping, well paced and finely detailed as they come. There’s a sequel in the works, The Evolution of Fear. Judging by the first chapter included in ‘Abrupt Physics’, it can’t come soon enough. 2016 seems a long way off now.
A great first publication from Orenda Books from whom I’m sure more greatness will arrive.