|Posted by Vladimir Mortsgna on April 19, 2019 at 4:45 PM|
I hereby pose a philosophical question about well-plotted mysteries. If on your first read you were bowled over by the fiendishness of the plotting, but thinking back can’t reconstruct the machinery of the plot, is it really fiendishly constructed? Nobody really knows their own memory, but it sure seems to me that I have a good memory for some plots. I never had to re-read Murder on the Orient Express or The Hound of the Baskervilles to remind myself what was going on, or The Name of the Rose. I did get a little vague on the Spy who Came in from the Cold, though, and had to refresh my memory about the various crosses and double-crosses. Does this prove that the Spy was a more complex plot than And Then There were None? As I may have said before, perhaps this is part of being entertained, that the reader is swept up in a sort of impressionistic work of art that does not hold together if analyzed scientifically.
For Catch me: Kill me, I re-read a good chunk of the book to try to sort out the twists but had particular trouble with one. I mentioned in the spoiler-free version that the seeming core of the mystery is a Russian poet, Boris Kotlikoff, defecting but then being kidnapped on the streets of New York by the KGB. Immigrations authority Ben Leary wants to figure out why. CIA heavy Gus Geller wants the poet back, and hires a down-and-out ex-agent named Charlie Brewer to figure out where Kotlikoff is and get him back. Brewer is given no team and scarcely any resources, so he ends up working with an ex-acrobat who happens to live in his building and also happens to be an unreliable drunk.
Despite seemingly being on the same side, nationally and in terms of Kotlikoff’s welfare, Geller doesn’t want Leary involved and in fact threatens his life. So Geller wants Kotlikoff out without anyone besides him knowing why Kotlikoff, a seemingly harmless and barely political poet, was even in.
Leary manages to foil Geller’s thugs once on his own and later once on a tip that comes just in time and also costs his informant his life. Using every clue he can in Kotlikoff’s writings, he pieces together Kotlikoff’s role in a sort of defector pipeline that has as its next target the Soviet Union’s top nuclear scientist, an old friend. The Soviets apparently believe that the scientist will be willing to trade himself for the poet once he comes to light, or that the Americans will be willing to make the trade. I couldn’t reconstruct why the reader is then conflicted by the plan to rescue Kotlikoff – on re-reading, it seems like we would be happy with both. But it was convincing at the time. There are hints that the Soviets will be tempted to engage in nuclear threats to get the scientist back – but they don’t get the scientist back and there is no nuclear war in 1977.
Certainly, the Geller angle leads us to regard Brewer’s rescue suspiciously, because Leary learns that his CIA colleague has created an assassins ring that murders defectors from the inside to spare the KGB the trouble – for a fee. Presumably, if the Soviets lose Kotlikoff, they will have to become customers again. Leary gets close enough to the scientist to talk to him and turn him in if he wants to, but the scientist successfully convinces him not to do so. But Leary does manage to break the Geller ring with a few pages left and from that point we can root for Brewer with a clear conscience – and the part where they get the guy out of his place of captivity is boffo.
Other than the slow start and the not-fully-coherent (or at least not-fully-memorable) plot, another of my criticisms would be gratuitous torture. I can think of some thrillers where torture was an element with a point to the plot (such as Quiller’s resisting interrogation by his encyclopedic knowledge of truth sera) and others where it seems a little masochistic (such as some of the Dick Francis mysteries). Usually torture as a plot device demonstrates the ruthlessness and inhumanity of the villains or the extremely high stakes, which are both very well established by the time the torture appears in Catch me: Kill me. It seems that it may exist to create a little bit more suspense: if the informant cracked and tells Geller’s thugs what he knows, they are going to get the scientist anyway. But if that was the purpose of it, Hallahan didn’t effectively sell it.
Minor flaws aside, this was a very good one that deserves more readers.
Categories: Edgar Winner Reviews (Spoilers)