By: James Bartlett, Special to The Irish American Post
Just Occasionally, a book is published where it turns out that the real-life story of the author is more interesting (or wildly different) to the fictional one written on its pages.
Currently riding high in the New York Times bestseller list and snapped up by
Paramount Studios for over $1 million with hopes of bringing it to the big screen,
Adrian McKinty's The Chain is having a moment in sun (Mulholland Books 2019,
355pp, $28 hardcover).
Back in 2017 though, things were very different for the Northern Irish author. He
had given up writing and was working as an Uber driver, bartender and teacher - but it was not enough. His family were evicted from their home in Melbourne,
McKinty had won many awards - especially for his series of 1980s-era books
featuring Northern Irish police detective Sean Duffy - but, like many authors, had found his royalty checks too small to fully support a family.
A near cri de coeur email to an author he admired led to a call from a Hollywood screenwriter and producer, who sent him a life-saving check for $10,000 and a
question: would he give writing a final try? Specifically, did he have a story in
mind that could be set in America?
Skeptical but thankful, McKinty found an old short story he had written after a visit to Mexico City a few years before. While there he had learned about exchange killings: where a person offers to swap themselves for a kidnapped family member while the ransom was raised.
He combined this with the idea of chain letters – a throwback to newspaper-cutting poisoned pen ransom letters and sort of the modern equivalent of emails you’re supposed to forward to five people lest you have terrible luck – and that was the seed for The Chain.
He bashed out a few pages, and didn’t even dare hope.
Two years later and some unbelievable phone calls later, he’s holding on for dear life on what must seem like a crazy rollercoaster.
McKinty had tried writing standalones before, ignoring his publisher’s advice to carry on with a series, and, he admitted diplomatically in an interview:
“It did not get a critical response.”
That’s not the case today, though even in those days he preferred the format of a single story:
“You don’t know who’s going to be alive at the end, whereas in a series you know the hero always will be. Cliff hangers are the worst!”
Impressive quotes from Stephen King and Dennis Lehane grace the cover of The Chain, but it will be some time before it makes it to the silver screen – if it ever does, as Hollywood can be so fickle – so for now, what is all the fuss about?
The Chain tells the story of Rachel O'Neill, a divorced mother who learns that her 11-year-old daughter Kylie has been kidnapped.
That's horrifying enough, but then she learns that a huge ransom is just the
first task she has to complete: the only way to get Kylie back is to kidnap
another child and hold her hostage.
Kyle will be released when - and only when - that next victim's parents pay the
ransom and then kidnap another child too.
It's a plan that's horrifying simple in its brutality: if Rachel doesn't kidnap another child or if that child's parents don't kidnap a child or pay the ransom
quickly, Kylie will be murdered.
Of course, contacting the authorities or saying a word to anyone will mean the
end for Kylie too, and Rachel looks online to see if the mysterious caller behind
"The Chain" is telling the truth about the threats - and they are.
Rachel is now part of The Chain, a terrifying kidnapping scheme that turns parents from victims into criminals - and like the endless loops of a chain, it
seems like it will never end.
A fast read (it took me just two or three sittings), this thriller understandably
has little time for anything other than the main premise. It's one that is
chillingly simple and naturally terrifying, whether you're a parent or not
(though I certainly thanked my lucky stars I was not a father while I was reading this).
When we first meet Rachel, we learnt that she is a cancer survivor, thought that
immediately takes a backseat when her precious Kylie is snatched from the
streets. It's the beginning of a nightmare that ends up nearly destroying everything she cares about.
It’s not a massive spoiler to say that Rachel – with the help of her (conveniently) ex-soldier brother-in-law Pete – do to turn kidnapper.
Apart from a trip to a home improvement store and finding a hideaway in cold, off-season Massachusetts, planning to snatch a child is an easy process that involves sifting through lots of Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Some people really do put their entire lives online for anyone to see – and take advantage of.
Rachel is never free of The Chain though, and in the latter stages of the book we learn more about who is behind it all.
Realizing that it will really never end – Rachel still gets the odd creepy phone call, and her new makeshift family is haunted by what happened – she and Pete decide to use the dark areas of the internet again to try and root out the monsters behind the scheme.
That’s when the gun-toting action really starts, and you find yourself drawn in by a different kind of fear – what if they don’t succeed? And what if that means Kylie is in danger again?
Relentless and diabolical, The Chain creates a big dark shadow that lurks behind you.
All the way through its tapping its bony finger on your shoulder and asking the same question over and over again: what would you do? Would you kidnap a child to save your own child? Would you kill that child to save your child? Just how far will you go?
It’s an agonizing debate that you see played out on these pages: McKinty’s chain has a sharp hook on the end.