“The Chain will unforgettably haunt you even if you just read the first chapter—so you might as well lock the doors, bite your nails, and read it all.”
Irish author Adrian McKinty has built a pair of crime investigation series, as well as a handful of stand-alones. Always dark with an undertone of grit and desperation, he’s also seasoned his compelling fiction with a generous twist of wry humor.
But leave the frivolous behind: The Chain is any parent’s horror story, spelled out in twisted and lurid detail. The only way to read it is to be very sure it’s not going to happen to you and yours—but McKinty doesn’t leave much room for that certainty. It’s tempting to wonder whether this increasing noir tension results in part from the author’s relocation to New York City: away from the direct effects of “The Troubles,” and into the binding net of American urban life and menace.
At the outset of The Chain, divorced mom Rachel O’Neill learns her young daughter Kylie has been kidnapped—learns it from a disembodied voice on her phone, followed by a call from the mother who committed the crime. How can she get her daughter back? Money, yes, but the ransom is the smallest part of the task: She must kidnap another child, set up the same threat scenario, keep the “chain” of kidnaps going. Or else her daughter will die. The mom who’s taken her child prisoner has done so under the same threat, for her own child. And on it goes.
Most Americans and many Europeans will have received a “chain letter” at some point. They used to come in the mail, with the names of a few friends who waited for you to send them a recipe or something similar. Their more threatening form arrived with the Internet: “Send this to five people and get rich; fail to send it, and you’ll have bad luck, bad karma, horrible results.”
McKinty, in his note at the end of the book, admits to a fascination from fifth grade with such poisonous threats. And by melding it to a dreaded Mexican concept of “exchange kidnapping” and his own twist on terror, he designed this long-term threat—then set it on Plum Island, a resort section of coastal Massachusetts that can morph into an ominously barren region in the non-tourist season.
The exhilaration of a crime ride with McKinty is that he never stays just on the surface. His jabs to the underworld aren’t just in terms of menacing criminal figures; they reach the darkness in all of us. Detached now from his Irish setting (he moved to New York City with family), he pries open how humans react to evil. One moment Rachel’s the shower, trying fruitlessly to “get clean.” The next, she’s calling BS on a quote from Camus, “in the depth of winter I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” And she confronts her soul:
“All she feels is pain and misery. Fear above all. And yes, this is the depth of winter all right. This is the middle of the Ice Age at the sunless North Pole. My daughter has been kidnapped and to get her back I’m going to have to grab a sweet little boy from off the street and threaten him and his family and mean it. Mean it when I say I’m going to kill him because if I don’t I’ll never see Kylie again.”
And of course, if and when Rachel obeys, she doesn’t know whether she can live with herself afterward. Or whether her daughter will accept her if she does this.
McKinty’s fierce twists of narrative and pressure create one highly believable surprise after another, for a compelling up-to-date twist on crime and threat. The Chain will unforgettably haunt you even if you just read the first chapter—so you might as well lock the doors, bite your nails, and read it all.
But don’t recommend it to parents of small children!