Please join me in welcoming Glen Allison to Mystery Writing is Murder.
A review of The Informationist by Taylor Stevens
Expectations are a funny thing. And by funny, I mean they are like that dog with the wagging tail that, soon as you look away, bites your ankle. Or, conversely, they can be like the mean-looking mongrel who merely wants a pat on the head.
Example: You read a novel about a woman who goes into dangerous situations throughout the world to gather information. In the process, she is forced to kill people. Not anyone who doesn't need killing, mind you. When she does it, it happens so fast that she's on to the next challenger with her knives before the blood from the first one spatters on the wall. And, even though the people deserve it, the slayings stir blood lust in the killer. She fights it, but it's there.
You can't help expecting the author of such a story to show signs of inner turmoil. To show it in her eyes, somewhere deep.
But, no. Taylor Stevens, author of The Informationist, is nothing but pleasant here at Bouchercon 2011 in St. Louis. Fans drift to her table in the book signing room, each receiving a smile and kind words from the author. She takes time to encourage a young author who is suffering prepublication jitters. No sharp edges here. Her kindness is genuine.
Not so with her protagonist, Vanessa Michael Munroe, in The Informationist. Oh, Munroe might be smiling. But she is watchful for any preconceived notion on which she can prey. And her knives aren't far away from her fingertips.
She'll need them. And you won't blame her for using them.
“Some people have said it's gratuitous violence,” says Stevens, “but I say no. She doesn't seek it out, but it's always necessary.”
I agree. The story is more than the violence, however. Munroe, a young woman with a tortured past, usually travels the world on info-gathering missions for big business or other organizations. She uses her innate ability to learn languages rapidly to reveal choice nuggets of insight for her clients. In The Informationist, she is presented a different mission: Find out what happened to a missing American teen girl who disappeared while she traveled through Africa four years previously. Many have failed to find out what happened to the girl. Her father wants to know, to rest his mind.
Munroe rejects the offer, at first, shunning the millions in compensation. But that phrase plays in her mind. “Many have failed....” She is hooked. And so are we as readers. And thus begins a tale of one of the toughest – and most beguiling – protagonists I've run across in a while.
If you love thrillers featuring a character whose inner battles rival her external challenges, read The Informationist, which came out earlier this year. Her next Munroe novel, The Innocent, comes out at the end of 2011.
What I've intentionally left out, until now, is Taylor Stevens's background: She was raised in a communal apocalyptic cult which took her to four continents, including Africa – where much of The Informationist is set. That experience, and her familiarity with the setting, give this novel an authentic feel and emotional depth that grips the reader.
I stand next to Taylor as we gaze down through the windows of the 22nd floor of the conference hotel. A reception honoring another author swirls around us. She speaks of her past, neither embracing nor ignoring its reality. “It's not who I am; it is merely what I experienced.” On one hand, she wishes her novel could receive recognition on its own merits (and it definitely is being recognized). On the other hand, she is practical about how the publicity machine rolls on.
Though I do not press her for the kind of details for which today's inquiring minds lust, I sense there is much this woman endured as a child as she panhandled along dirty third-world streets. She has spoken of the closed-off nature of the cult, how it has left her, to this day, feeling like an outsider. Earlier in the day, while participating in one of the many author panels, she hushed the crowd by revealing that her education stopped at the sixth grade, and that she didn't read novels as a teenager. It wasn't allowed.
Her imagination, however, was not handcuffed. “I sometimes think of a time when I was 19. My privileges had been taken away for some minor offense. I had to go to bed at 8:30 p. m. with the younger children. I woke every morning at 5 a.m., which gave me two hours before reveille at 7. And every morning, for months, I'd walk around the compound for those two hours, just thinking. Just me and my imagination. Nobody could keep me from doing that. That time alone is my happiest memory in the cult, and perhaps paved the way for me to start writing this book over ten years later.”
That kind of persistence in the pursuit of a dream is inspiring for any would-be writer. It drives her protagonist, Munroe, in her mission to discover what happened to the lost girl. And, it has given us one of the best action/suspense novels of the year.
Glen C. Allison is the author of the Forte suspense series of New Orleans.
Interested in writing reviews? I’ll be running guest reviews for my Saturday Good Reads series on Saturdays. Contact me for details: elizabethspanncraig (at) gmail.com