ALPHA is a little bit like someone suffered toxic levels of exposure to the bad Manly Thrillers that pollute the shelves of every airport in the Western world, and instead of just dying of The Shitty, said to themselves, “what if one of these things was actually good?”
Greg Rucka is greatly admired, in my circle of writer friends, for the absolute egolessness of his writing. There’s no signature, no telltale quirk or tic. Every sentence is in absolute service to the narrative and its needs. To those of us who can’t help but cough our stylistic phlegm over our work, Greg comes off like a wizard. The great watchmaker. We just watch his stuff spin in its perfect selfless engineering and wonder how he did it. I remember, after reading SHOOTING AT MIDNIGHT, emailing Greg after I finished the last page and saying, simply, “what a bloody good book,” because I was still processing some of the things he did in there.
So, his new book’s called ALPHA. First of a projected trilogy, I believe. And it feels like Greg’s trying to engineer a fresh start. It’s got every cheap trick you’d expect from one of the Manly Techno-Thriller people. The protagonist is some hot-shit special-forces shoulder, there’s a pretty ex-wife, a kid who is not only cute and has a cute nickname but is also deaf, there’s laconic fellow soldiers and a spooky Colonel, and for Christ’s sake the action is set inside a terrorist-struck theme park full of vulnerable kiddies. You could stick six airport thrillers in a blender and pour this plot out.
And then what Greg does is he takes these pieces, and he very carefully pins them to wheels and springs and trains, and he spins them. This is the point where ALPHA becomes very much more than the sum of its parts, and where a Dale Brown fan who picked this book off the shelf starts wondering what exactly they’ve done to themselves.
It’s a very commercial book, to be sure, and a proper Yarn, but once it gets spinning, you realise the appeal to Greg of setting it in what is basically a downmarket Disneyland. He’s that writer who walked through a theme park, looking around, and working out all the ways in which people could be killed there. And therefore it’s also kind of eccentric. It’s fun stuff.
In fact, when you come down to it, it’s a bloody good book, and I hope it does for Greg what he wants it to do.