Bill Pronzini,
The Jade Figurine
(Carroll & Graf, 1991)

Dan Connell lives in Singapore. He had been a pilot, import-export agent, smuggler and a very rich man. Two years ago, that all ended in a plane crash on a smuggling run of illegal silk that cost him his plane, his pilot's license, his reputation, the life of his best friend and his peace of mind. Dan left his old life behind to settle into the financially unlucrative life of a dock-hand in Singapore. He became an honest man and, when one of his old contacts came to him with a one-time high-stakes deal, Dan politely declined.

So, Dan did the right thing, and he should be OK, right? Life does not always work that way, and the rest of the book tells us about treachery, plots-within-plots, double-crosses, triple-crosses and maybe even quadruple-crosses. Will Dan survive? Can he stay out of jail? Can he convince anyone that he is innocent? How many people will die before the story runs its course? Will we ever see the titular jade figurine?

The incident, where Dan says no to his old colleague, is on the fifth page of the book. The next 184 pages are almost exclusively Dan's attempts to survive various attempts to kill him, beat information out of him, trick him and pull him into the plots of various other characters, not to mention Dan trying to keep the police from locking him up for what appears to be his role in a laundry-list of crimes. I am not sure I have ever read a story that runs at this pace and with such unrelenting tension. Despite this incredibly rapid pace, the characters are very well developed, and when treachery surprises Dan, it is equally surprising to the reader.

The point-of-view is Dan's in the first person. Possibly because of this, he is the one character for whom I did not end up having a clear mental picture. If I were a good artist, I think I could draw every other character, so that another reader would say, "Yup, that's him (or her)!" I also ended up with some idea of what life in Singapore is like, and the book thus ends up being a nice mental vacation.

Given all the nice things that I have said, why do I withhold complete praise? I am not a very experienced reader of mysteries, and I think that a more knowledgeable fan of the genre might say, "Oh, another Dashiell Hammett disciple." No matter how gripping and compelling this tale might be, I doubt that there is a large amount of originality here. The characters are creations of Bill Pronzini, and setting the story in Singapore certainly added some spice, but the basic formula of The Maltese Falcon is there. Right on the cover of the book, there is a quote from the New York Times Book Review: "In many respects a latter-day Maltese Falcon."

Again, I do want to reiterate that the quality of writing is there, loud and clear, the story is quite complex, the characters are colorful, the setting is fascinating, and the pace and suspense are amazing. If Hammett had never existed, this book might be blowing people away. Matt Damon as Dan Connell? That would work.

So have fun, and disappear into another place for a while!

review by
Chris McCallister

15 March 2008

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new