A story of two halves. The first is a tight and propulsive story that will have you asking what you would do in an impossible situation. Sadly the second falls into more standard action thriller territory and left me underwhelmed.
Originally published in 2019
It’s something parents do every morning: Rachel Klein drops her daughter at the bus stop and heads into her day. But a cell phone call from an unknown number changes everything: it’s a woman on the line, informing her that she has Kylie bound and gagged in her back seat, and the only way Rachel will see her again is to follow her instructions exactly: pay a ransom, and find another child to abduct. This is no ordinary kidnapping: the caller is a mother herself, whose son has been taken, and if Rachel doesn’t do as she’s told, the boy will die.
“You are not the first. And you will certainly not be the last.” Rachel is now part of The Chain, an unending and ingenious scheme that turns victims into criminals—and is making someone else very rich in the process. The rules are simple, the moral challenges impossible; find the money fast, find your victim, and then commit a horrible act you’d have thought yourself incapable of just twenty-four hours ago.
But what the masterminds behind The Chain know is that parents will do anything for their children. It turns out that kidnapping is only the beginning.
Rachel Klein is driving to a doctor’s appointment when she receives a call from an unknown number. She is told that she will need to pull over and prepare herself for another phone call she should get just a couple of minutes later. There will be instructions to follow and she must not contact the police or any other kind of law enforcement. She is now part of ‘the Chain’.
The next call gives more information. Her teenage daughter Kylie has been kidnapped and the first thing she will need to do is raise money for a ransom. That’s the easy part. The second stage is the hard bit – she will have to carry out her own kidnapping, just as her daughter’s kidnappers have done. Kylie will only be released when her own victim pays the ransom and carries out their own kidnapping.
The Chain is a thriller, through and through. It is an exploration of the terrible things that a parent might feel compelled to do to save their child’s life. I wrote in my review of Brad Park’s Say Nothing (another child kidnapping story) how I felt that having a child made me susceptible to all sorts of emotional manipulations. A decade ago this sort of material would have left me quite cold but it’s hard not to engage your imagination to think how you would feel in those same situations. This is the sort of book that could easily make you never want to let your child out of your sights again.
You can imagine then that this proved pretty uncomfortable reading for me and I am sure that if I wasn’t reading it for my work, I would likely have abandoned it long before the end. That would not be so much a reflection of the book’s quality as my feeling about its intensity and that it sits outside my usual areas of interest. Still, having read it I feel that I ought to try to organize some of my thoughts about the book as a crime story.
Let’s start then with the concept of the kidnapping scheme that is described here. It is easy to understand why such a scheme could prove highly effective. Everything about the system is designed to ensure complicity, making it near-impossible for the victims to go to the authorities. In the author’s notes at the end of the novel McKinty suggests that he was inspired by what he learned about exchange kidnappings during a stay in Mexico – my own thoughts went to tiger kidnapping crimes like the Bank of Ireland robbery a little over a decade ago.
What makes McKinty’s idea feel incredible is not the premise but the scale. The idea that such a scheme could be successful, running through countless victims without a breakdown seems to really stretch credibility. Even with the most careful victim selection and the odd dead end, the scheme would require a clinical tidiness that feels quite far-fetched.
The novel is broken into two sections, the first dealing with the kidnapping of Kylie and what Rachel does in response, the second exploring what happens afterwards. The first part was by far the more engaging for me as it focuses on establishing the principal characters and exploring how it would feel to go through their ordeal. I had little difficulty putting myself in either character’s position and while I may question the wisdom of some of those choices (I am thinking particularly of a character Rachel comes to rely upon), I always understood them.
Both Rachel and Pete, her former brother-in-law, feel credible and I appreciate that there is an attempt to portray them as relatively normal people, each going through problems that predate the kidnapping. I appreciated the way that these can both sit in the background but also at times are shown to clearly inform or affect the characters’ choices, often in quite critical ways.
While I empathized with Pete, I cannot say that I found him particularly likable. I found it rather hard to relate to his intensity of feelings about his niece and can’t say that I was rooting for some of the later developments in the story to happen. The social issues that his storyline raises and discusses however are handled very thoughtfully and I appreciated that McKinty didn’t go the route of giving us overtly heroic characters to follow but rather more flawed and three-dimensional characters.
There are few surprises in this first section but to be honest that didn’t trouble me at all. The pacing is so strong and the stakes are set out so clearly that I found myself quite gripped and wanting to see how things would play out. My issues with the novel really lie with its second phase.
Here I have to be a little more vague to avoid giving too much away about the key developments. I can say that this second section of the novel is more action-focused than the first and might be summed up as ‘Rachel goes looking for trouble’.
It is this section of the novel that has to demystify the Chain, giving us information about its origins. This was, of course, necessary but it struck me as rather anticlimactic. Rather than feeling satisfied and that I understood these events better, I found it even harder to believe how the Chain could have started in the first place once I had met those responsible. It doesn’t help that, in contrast to characters like Rachel and Pete, they feel somewhat disconnected from reality – a sort of cinematic evil rather than a truthful one. The more we know them, the further we get from the character-focused material in the first part that had been so interesting, and instead we find ourselves in thriller territory.
It really didn’t work for me. While I can understand why Rachel might decide not to let matters lie, I feel that the novel seems to lose its focus on exploring its characters from that point on. The shift in tone and style feels quite abrupt and it tries to push Rachel into more clearly heroic territory that I am not sure was earned by the character up until that point. Nor can I say that I found the action particularly exciting although it is described in quite cinematic terms. It probably doesn’t help that the reader is required to accept a few really contrived plot developments that are needed to set up that big action-driven finale.
For all of my complaints about this second section, one aspect I did appreciate was that it didn’t completely forget about the things that had been done in the first. This was welcome, even if it feels a little half-hearted – I suppose the question of what justice would look like in this situation is a debatable one. While I understood the choice that McKinty makes at this moment, I think it might have been more interesting to either leave it open-ended or go darker.
The Chain had been at its most interesting when our protagonists were reacting to events beyond their control. It is the question of what they would do with so much on the line and under such intense pressure that made the early chapters feel so compulsive. Once that pressure is withdrawn, the novel seems to lose much of that propulsive momentum and so, for me at least, my interest went with it.