Review: Chris Pavone – The Expats

The expat lifestyle can provide rich pickings for a thriller writer and I’m surprised that more books haven’t used the subject. The dislocation of a person from their home environment and support network of family and friends and the evils (real and imagined) faced in an unfamiliar place give a great sense of dislocation in a book. The Expats by Chris Pavone mines this subject well to provide a thriller that shows plenty of promise but is let down slightly by its convoluted plot.

Kate Moore is mid-grade Washington civil servant bored with her job when her husband, Dexter, is offered a lucrative post in Luxembourg. He is deliberately vague about the details except that it involves protecting the computer security of a banking client. Kate gives up her job and with it the double life that she has been leading. For Kate’s real employer has been the CIA which she has kept secret from her family. Once in Luxemburg, the expat life-style soon begins to pall and Kate embarks on an endless round of lunches with other mothers who all complain about their increasingly absent husbands. She strikes up a  friendship with an American couple, Julia and Bill, who show an unnatural interest in the life of Kate and her husband. Is Kate’s previous work beginning to catch up with her, or are the couple after a different target altogether?

There are a lot of good things to say about this book. Firstly Chris Pavone’s use of the female point of view really is excellent and it is a credit to the writer that he keeps the voice of Kate authentic all through the book. When Kate describes boring lunches with other mums and the drabness of spending a morning in the car just to finish one task, it all rings true. Pavone has also clearly spent time as an expat and the life he describes – the reliance on Ikea flatpack furniture to furnish temporary homes and the struggle to master an unfamiliar language – all add authenticity to the narrative. However as a thriller, as you began to peel back the layers, the plot got more unbelievable.

The concept of Kate being an ex-CIA employees was plausible enough although it was slightly odd how easily they seem to have accepted her husband’s relocation to Luxembourg. However, as the details of why Kate and her husband were being followed began to emerge (I don’t want to get into spoilers here) the plot became quite derivative. It was a cross between the Robert Ludlum ‘Bourne’ books and the film Mr and Mrs Smith. The scale of the fraud that the plot hinges on is so incredible that I really had to suspend all belief for the remainder of the book. It’s fairly easy for the reader to work out the nature of the conspiracy and therefore difficult to believe that an ex-CIA operative like Kate takes so long to cotton-on.

Overall the book was an enjoyable read and I would read more from this author as I think he has plenty of potential. I just think any conspiracy/CIA based plot has to move away from the legacy of Robert Ludlum and come up with something unique.

The book is on the shortlist for the 2012 CWA John Creasy New Blood Dagger. Other (positive) reviews can be found in The Guardian and at crimesquad.com.